Della Reese, the singer and actress who became a household name while starring as a divine supervisor named Tess on CBS’ Touched by An Angel, has died at 86, her family and Roma Downey confirmed to EW.
“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,” Downey said in a statement. “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. 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.”
Reese found her biggest fame when she signed on to play Roma Downey’s angel boss in the spiritual drama from Martha Williamson that aired from 1994 to 2003. Each episode involved Tess assigning the young angel Monica (Downey) with cases involving someone who was at a crossroads in their life. Though it was initially canceled, Angel was helped back on the small screen by devoted fans and went on to become a massive hit for CBS. It also earned Reese two Emmy nominations.
CBS also released a statement regarding Reese’s passing. “We’re deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Della Reese,” it reads. “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.”
Born in Detroit as Delloreese Patricia Early, Reese began singing at an early age before forming her own gospel group. She signed her first record contract in the ’50s and went on to top the charts with “Don’t You Know,” an adaptation of the aria “Quando m’en vo” from La Boheme.
Starting in the late ’60s, she transitioned to TV and began guest-starring in dramas like Police Woman and McCloud before launching her own eponymous talk show in 1969 that lasted eight months. She became the first African-American woman to guest-host The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1970 and went on to secure steadier gigs in series like Chico and the Man, It Takes Two, and Room 222.
In 1979, Reese suffered a near-fatal aneurysm that required two surgeries. She would end up becoming ordained — in her ministerial work, she was known as Rev. Dr. Della Reese Lett — and told The Seattle Times in 1996 that “my brain exploding was one of the best things that happened to me. You get such an understanding because you experience it for yourself. It gives you courage and courage gives you strength and strength gives you greater belief in your belief in God.”
From 1996 to 1998, she recurred in Promised Land, an Angel spin-off that starred Gerald McRaney. Her last TV appearance was on Hallmark’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered, another drama from Williamson.
Reese suffered from diabetes later in life, which she blamed on poor diet and lack of exercise.
She is survived by three children, Dominique Reese, James Reese, and Franklin Reese. Her daughter Deloreese Daniels, passed away. Her three previous marriages ended in divorce and one was annulled.