Della Reese, Touched by an Angel Star and Legendary Singer, Dead at 86

Veteran entertainer and real-life minister played Roman Downey's wise mentor and mother figure in the beloved drama, a new era in her nearly 70-year career

By Natalie Finn Nov 20, 2017 5:54 PMTags

Della Reese did it all: She sang, she acted, she traded barbs with Redd Foxx and she showed Roma Downey the way as her angelic mentor.

The multi-faceted veteran star, who charmed with her wise ways on Touched by An Angel, has died. She was 86.

"On behalf of her husband, Franklin Lett, and all her friends and family, I share with you the news that our beloved Della Reese has passed away peacefully at her California home last evening surrounded by love. She was an incredible wife, mother, grandmother, friend, and pastor, as well as an award-winning actress and singer. Through her life and work she touched and inspired the lives of millions of people," Downey told E! News 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. Della Reese will be forever in our hearts. Rest In Peace, sweet angel. We love you."

"We're deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Della Reese," a spokesperson for CBS told E! News Monday. "She was a multi-talented, award-winning performer who shined brightly on soundstages and in concert halls. For nine years, we were privileged to have Della as part of the CBS family when she delivered encouragement and optimism to millions of viewers as Tess on Touched by an Angel. We will forever cherish her warm embraces and generosity of spirit. She will be greatly missed. Another angel has gotten her wings."

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Previously, Downey had posted a photo of her and Reese together, captioned with Psalm 23, the Lord's Prayer. The friends and co-stars had bonded over faith and family when they starred together on their hit CBS drama, which ran from 1994 until 2003 and earned both of them Emmy nominations.

In fact, as Downey recalled, she counted Della Reese coming into her life two decades ago as a prayer being answered.

"My mother had died when I was 10 years of age," Downey told CBS News in 2015, "and you know, my whole life, I was looking for that mother figure, that nurturing figure, and I can see a lot of my own behavior, particularly through adolescence that was almost like a cry out for that...and I had a prayer as a young girl that somehow someone would come into my life and fill that roll. Well it's a prayer that took almost 20 years to be answered."


She continued, "When I showed up on the set of Touched by an Angel that very first day and I met my co-star, Della Reese, I put out my hand to shake her hand, as you would do when you meet a new person—she didn't want to take my hand, she wasn't interested...She was only interested in pulling me into her arms and holding me. And it was like a big, nurturing, loving hug. It was the answer to a prayer, and I cried, like a baby in her arms. I was like, 'finally,' I got the mother love restored in my life."

Reese played Tess, the wry but tender supervisor of Downey's Monica, an angel investigator on Earth dedicated to both solving mysteries and aiding in the repair of the spiritual wounds caused by tragedy and heartache. 

In real life, Reese was the godmother of Downey's daughter Reilly Marie. And when Downey married Mark Burnett in 2007, Reese—also an ordained minister—officiated the ceremony and stood in for the bride's late mother.


The angel role suited Reese, who won over multiple generations of fans as Tess and couldn't help but end up a little typecast, going on to star in holiday and faith-themed fare such as A Very Mary Christmas and the TV movies HallelujahChristmas AngelDear Secret Santa and Miracle at Gate 123.

Asked what attracted her to 2012's Christmas Angel, in which she plays a neighbor who's secretly been granting wishes made by some local kids who ends up befriending the 10-year-old daughter of a single mom and together they team up to make it a very merry Christmas for everybody on the block, Reese said simply, "Well, it's my life."

"I didn't have to research anything," she told Belief Net. "It's the life that I've lived. I understand this lady, I understand what she's been through, I understand how she feels, where she is now, coming down from where she was. So, it was something I was consciously aware of and I didn't have to wonder how do I do this or how do I do that?  I knew the naturalness of it."

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And yet the life that she's lived can hardly be summed up in so many words.

While she slipped seamlessly into the role of the endlessly empathetic and giving mother figure, Reese first made a name for herself as a sultry chanteuse and knew how to time a joke more than most.

Born in Detroit on July 6, 1931, Delloreese Patricia Early grew up with gospel music and her love of singing was further sparked by jazz artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. She signed her first recording contract in 1953 and went on to make six albums for New York-based Jubilee Records. Her 1957 single "And That Reminds Me" became a radio hit and sold a million copies; two years later, her first single for RCA, "Don't You Know," hit No. 2 on the pop chart.

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A born entertainer who appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show at least 20 times, Reese had her own talk show, Della, that lasted for three years—more time than most celebrities are given these days to try to make that work—and in 1970 she became the first black woman to fill in as guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Her first acting role came on a 1968 episode of The Mod Squad, and she became a familiar face on the soap-drama-cop-show circuit until she landed a regular role on Chico and the Man, starring Freddie Prinze, in 1975. In the 1970s, '80s and '90s she appeared on everything from Welcome Back, Kotter and The Love Boat to MacGyverPicket Fences and Designing Women. A younger audience may also know her from That's So Raven and the 2005 comedy Beauty Shop, not to mention her Christmas repertoire.


Reese was dear friends with legendary comedian Redd Foxx and in 1991 they were starring as husband and wife in the sitcom The Royal Family (a 4-year-old Naya Rivera played one of the couple's grandkids) when Foxx suffered a fatal heart attack on the set.

When the show came up during a 2010 interview, a huge smile took over Reese's face with the memory.

"He was my friend for at least 40 years," she recalled. "We were hungry together. We were out of work together. We shared sandwiches together. We were friends." She acknowledged that Foxx was funny, "but he was more than anybody ever gave him credit for. The reason Redd Foxx was broke [when he died] was because if you came and you ask him, and he could see your need, he would run his hand in his pocket and give you something.

"I didn't have a job, and I went to see him...He called the man who he was working for and he said, 'my back is out...I don't think I'm gonna be able to go on, but Dee is here. And she's good, she can do this show for me. I'll be alright tomorrow night.'" Foxx even fake-hobbled on stage, she said, to tell the audience he couldn't perform, but his friend Della Reese would give them a great show.

Reese was hired the next night. 

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Reese also commanded audiences as senior minister of the church she founded in Los Angeles, Understanding Principals for Better Living, or UP Church.

In 1994 she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and when Roma Downey got her own star in 2014, Reese was there to support her.

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When John Dye, who starred with the ladies as so-called "Angel of Death" Andrew on Touched by an Angel, passed away suddenly of a heart attack in 2011 at the age of 47, Reese told The Hollywood Reporter, "Roma, John and I were a family unit. We worked together every day for seven years. We acted like a family. We lived like a family. I felt what he felt. He was my Angel Boy, that's what I called him."

Reese's adopted daughter, Deloreese Daniels Owens, died in 2002 at 42. "You're not supposed to bury your children, your children are supposed to bury you," she told THR, saying she had reached out to Dye's parents. "My daughter made her transition. I told them you don't get over it, you adjust to live with it. This is not a time when anyone can help you." 

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Reese was open about her battle with Type 2 diabetes, which was diagnosed in 2000 after she collapsed on the set of Touched by an Angel. She became an advocate for education and awareness about how to prevent and manager the disease, and her team put together a website and hotline for people seeking information. 

"I learned to do what was necessary because I am fighting for the quality of my life," Reese told USA Today in 2003. "I don't want my husband to push me around in a wheelchair. I don't want someone to lead me around because I'm blind. You don't have to let your life be destroyed by diabetes. You can reclaim your life."

After she was spotted in a wheelchair in 2013, her rep clarified that the actress sometimes used one to make getting around easier but she was not wheelchair-bound.

In 2015, a swarm of fans—as well as Downey and actress Diane Ladd—was there to greet Reese when she was presented with a star on Palm Spring's North Palm Canyon Drive in honor of her nearly 70-year career.

"It means people love me and enjoy my work," she said, according to the Desert Sun.

"My mother scrubbed floors, cooked in make enough food for us to eat," Reese continued. "My father poured steel in a place that he shouldn't have poured water because it was so dangerous. My mother kept saying to me, 'Don't let this bother you...Just keep on trusting God and knowing that he will never leave you; he will never forsake you. I've already been what I wanted to be. I hope I've been what He wanted me to be, too. I think I have. I feel like I have...

"I will always honor the love that you give me. I will always be available to you. If you need talk; if you need prayer or understanding and you see me on the street, stop me."

Reese is survived by her third husband, Franklin Lett, whom she marred in 1983, and their three children.

In a statement, the late actress' rep told E! News Monday, "The world has lost a huge talent. A successful actor, singer, writer and more for decades. She was also a trailblazer. Della was the first black woman to host a talk show. A forerunner to Oprah. Her life was difficult at times with illness and loss; but her cup was never 1/2 empty…and it wasn't half full…it was overflowing with goodness and love for everyone. She was the most consistently positive and optimistic person I have known. And she touched so many people with that beautiful energy. She always resonated at such a high frequency. That was the gift she gave you when you were in her company. She truly personified being Touched by an Angel."