Della Reese, singer, actress and 'Touched by an Angel' star, dies at 86

Della Reese, who started as a gospel singer for Mahalia Jackson when she was only 13 and rose to television fame in her 60s as Tess on CBS’ "Touched by an Angel," died Sunday evening. She was 86.

Reese died "peacefully at her California home surrounded by love," former "Angel" costar Roma Downey said in a statement Monday.

"Through her life and work [Reese] touched and inspired the lives of millions of people," Downey said Monday. "She was a mother to me, and I had the privilege of working with her side by side for so many years on ‘Touched by an Angel.’ I know heaven has a brand new angel this day."

Born Delloreese Patricia Early in Detroit on July 6, 1931, Reese was plucked from her church choir by Jackson as a replacement singer and then joined the legendary gospel singer on her summer tour — a gig that wound up lasting five summers.

"Everything was a bill in our house," she told The Times in 2003. "There was a grocery bill. Rent was a bill and the cleaning was a bill." Her father would take what money was left and gamble. "Sometimes he'd win and it'd be good times, and if he didn't win, it wouldn't be such a good time."

Early on, she was voted most promising singer by Cashbox and received a Grammy nomination for her 1960 album, “Della.” She had numerous Top 100 hits and reached No. 2 on the pop charts with the song "Don't You Know?"

Decades later, she would be nominated twice more for Grammy Awards, for female soul gospel performance ("You Gave Me Love") and traditional soul gospel album ("Live! My Soul Feels Better Right Now").

"I had the opportunity to sing with some of the best symphonic orchestras in the world,” Reese told The Times in 1997.

After years of singing as a guest on variety shows, Reese transitioned to a TV career. She became the first black woman to host "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and appeared in high-profile miniseries including "The House of Yes" and "Roots: The Next Generations."

She also had memorable roles on the shows "Chico and the Man" and "The A-Team" and in the film "Harlem Nights," the last of which included a funny fight scene with costar Eddie Murphy. She hosted her own show, “Della,” in 1969-’70.

But it was "Touched by an Angel" that garnered her the most attention. From 1994 to 2002, Downey and Reese explored religion, playing an apprentice angel and her supervisor, respectively, who were sent to Earth to solve people’s problems.

The women had a special bond off screen and continued to be friends afterward. Reese had been ordained by the Chicago-based Universal Foundation for Better Living in 1987, and when Downey got married, Reese performed the ceremony.

Despite a slow start that almost led to cancellation, "Touched by an Angel" grew into a major hit with ratings in TV’s Top 10 for four of its nine seasons.

Reese was twice nominated for Primetime Emmys and once for a Golden Globe, all for her work on "Touched by an Angel." For seven years running, she was the Image Awards' outstanding actress in a drama series. She was awarded a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in 1994 for her television work.

Reese had two close brushes with death in the 1970s. In 1970, she walked through a plate glass door in Bel-Air in the presence of her 10-year-old daughter and lost pints of blood. Then in 1979, she collapsed during a taping of "The Tonight Show" when an aneurysm in her brain ruptured. Surviving these incidents led her to study, teach and begin her ministry, she said.

"I was lying there on that bed while I convalesced, looking back at what I had done with my life. I had done some marvelous things, but they were all for me or my immediate family. If I had died there and then, what could people say I had accomplished?” she said in 2003. "So, after I recovered, I went to school and studied metaphysics at the Johnnie Colemon Institute in Chicago and got my certificate.”

Also in 1979, she met Franklin Lett, an advertising executive who became her manager and then, in 1983, her third husband.

In her 1997 book, "Angels Along the Way: My Life With Help From Above,” written with Lett, Reese described a lifetime of troubles. She told of a first husband who beat her, a second husband who couldn't compete with her and two miscarriages with a man she didn’t marry. She first heard the N-word at 6, knowing it was bad, she said, when classmates "snickered"; when she was 12, a cousin was killed in the 1943 Detroit riots; with gospel singer Jackson, she toured a segregated South and had to use the bushes when "colored" bathrooms weren't available.

In later years, Reese would remark that she would never forget what she learned from Jackson, including "how to communicate with people through song.”

As the Rev. Della Reese Lett, she founded Understanding Principles for Better Living Church, or the UP Church, now based in Inglewood. "We use many sources of inspiration: God, Jesus Christ, Ernest Holmes' science of mind philosophy, Socrates, anything that helps us understand the principles of the universe,” she said in 1986.

Reese is survived by her husband and three children. Deloreese Daniels Owens, the daughter she adopted from her half-brother and his wife when the child was 2, died in March 2002 at age 41.

The Associated Press and staff writer Jevon Phillips contributed to this report.

cdz@latimes.com

Twitter @TheCDZ

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UPDATES:

2:30 p.m.: This story was updated with additional details. It was originally published at 11:20 a.m.

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