Della Reese, the actress and gospel-influenced singer who in middle age found her greatest fame as Tess, the wise angel in the long-running television drama Touched by an Angel, has died at age 86, the AP reports. Reese's co-star on the series, Roma Downey, said in a statement that the actress died peacefully Sunday evening in her home in the Los Angeles area. No further details were included. Before Touched by an Angel debuted in 1994, Reese was mainly known as a singer, although she had costarred on Chico and the Man, Charlie and Company, and The Royal Family and hosted her own talk show, Della. Reese is survived by her husband, Franklin Lett, and three children.
Touched by an Angel was a gamble for CBS from the start. The story of an apprentice angel (Downey) and her supervisor (Reese) being sent to Earth to solve people's problems appeared to have little chance in a TV world dominated by sitcoms and police dramas. The first season brought mediocre ratings, but slowly the show's audience grew until it became one of television's highest rated dramas. It lasted until 2003. "Through her life and work she touched and inspired the lives of millions of people. 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," Downey wrote in her statement. "I know heaven has a brand new angel this day." Reese got her start in music at age 13, when she replaced a member of Mahalia Jackson's troupe for a show in Reese's hometown of Detroit and Jackson went on to enlist her for a number of summer tours.