Della Reese, the actress and gospel-influenced singer who found her greatest fame as Tess, the wise angel in the long-running television drama "Touched by an Angel," has died at age 86.
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.
Heaven has a brand new angel Della today 🕊🕊🕊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 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. 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. 🕊🕊🕊🕊🕊🕊🕊🕊🕊
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."
"Touched by an Angel" was a gamble for CBS from the start. The story of an apprentice angel (Roma 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.
“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,’ ” CBS said. “We will forever cherish her warm embraces and generosity of spirit. She will be greatly missed. Another angel has gotten her wings.”
Reese's singing career also began in church, when she joined the junior gospel choir at the Olivet Baptist Church in her hometown of Detroit. Soon she was singing at other churches, at civic events and on the radio.
When Mahalia Jackson, known as The Queen of Gospel Music, came to Detroit, she needed a singer to replace a member of her troupe. She turned to Reese, who was only 13.
Jackson was so impressed by the teenager's voice that she enlisted her for a summer tour, and Reese went on to tour with her for five summers. In later years she would remark that she would never forget what she learned from the legendary gospel singer, including "how to communicate with people through song."
By the time “Touched by an Angel” was in reruns, Reese, an ordained minister since the early ‘80s, was focused on her religious work. She announced her retirement from performing in 2014.
She was the founding pastor of her own Los Angeles-based church, Understanding Principles for Better Living (or “Up”). In later years, she was frequently billed as Reverend Doctor Della Reese Lett.
Reese is survived by her husband, Franklin Lett, and three children.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.