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Feature: Della Reese ready for a break

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   April 24, 2003 at 7:14 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, April 24 (UPI) -- With "Touched by an Angel" ending its 9-year prime time run, singer-actress Della Reese is ready for a break -- but she intends to get busy again soon.

The series -- staring Roma Downey as the angel Monica and Reese as her partner Tess -- has had its ups and downs since premiering on CBS in 1994. It has enjoyed Top 10 ratings success when it was part of the network's Sunday night schedule, but Saturdays have been a tougher challenge.

In its first two seasons, airing on Saturday night, the show finished well out of the Top 10. It flourished in its third year, when CBS aired it on Sundays.

Reese was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series twice for her work on the show -- in 1996 and 1998, when Downey was also nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Guest stars -- including Louis Gossett, Jr., Diane Ladd, Bruce Davison, Marion Ross, Patty Duke, Kirk Douglas and Kathy Baker -- have been nominated for Emmys for their appearances on the show.

Valerie Bertinelli joined Downey, Reese and John Dye as angels on earth in 2001, but the network moved the show back to Saturday -- notorious as the toughest night of the week for serious network drama. Ratings went South and "Touched by an Angel" seemed to have run its course.

The series concludes this weekend with episodes on both Saturday and Sunday.

Reese, 71, knows what she wants to do with her newfound leisure time.

"The first thing I want to do is sit firmly on my lower posterior for a very long time," said Reese in an interview with United Press International. "Then I want to lay down a lot -- lay down on the bed, lay down on the beach. Then I intend to go back to work. I intend to work my life out, not rust my life out."

After working for 65 years, Reese said she is used to hard work -- but the regimen of the past nine years has been pretty daunting.

The show was filmed in Salt Lake City, so she was there Monday through Friday. At the end of the work week, she flew to Los Angeles, where she spent weekends ministering to the congregation of the Universal Foundation for Better Living, a West Hollywood church where she has been an ordained minister since 1987.

Reese said she plans to devote more time to the church now, but she conceded that it feels good to be in the position -- for the first time in her life -- where she has the economic freedom not to work if she doesn't want to.

For Reese -- who began her career as a singer at 6 and went on the road at 13 with legendary gospel diva Mahalia Jackson -- that freedom is especially welcome in the recording studio.

"I never had a chance to record exactly what I wanted to record exactly the way wanted to record it," she said.

"Touched by an Angel" has given her the opportunity to change that.

"I went into the recording studios with my own money and recorded music the way I think gospel music should be recorded," she said. "It cleaned me out to be able to get that desire fulfilled."

Reese may have gained considerable fame as a singer and actress ("Harlem Nights," "Roots: The Next Generations," "Chico and the Man") -- but Tess was the kind of career-making role that comes rarely to an actress.

But she said it has been more than that -- a kind of spiritual adventure that has been much more than a piece of entertainment.

"People have made it a part of their lives and there are people who depend on it," said Reese. "People who live alone and don't speak to anyone but the dry cleaner or the grocer. 'Touched by an Angel' sends ... a message that God is consciously aware of you."

Reese told the story of a woman who thanked her because the show saved the woman's life. She told Reese her husband had died suddenly and she didn't know if she could handle it.

"I don't know how I ended up in front of the TV," Reese quoted the woman. "There was a show on about a man who was dying, and telling his loved ones he was going to a better place. He reminded me so much of my husband that I was sure that was the way my husband took it. I was able to say to my children it's all right cause daddy's happy and he's in a wonderful place."

Is it gratifying to get that kind of feedback from viewers?

"That's more than feedback, honey," said Reese. "I never had anybody tell me before that a TV show saved their life. It's a shame that (the show will not remain on the air) for people who do need it."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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