Actress and singer Della Reese, who was best known as her maternal angel character, Tess, in the series Touched by an Angel. Picture: Supplied
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, aged 86.

Reese’s co-star on the series, Roma Downey, said in a statement that the actress had died peacefully at her home in the Los Angeles area on Sunday evening.

Before Touched by an Angel debuted in 1994, Reese was mainly known as a singer, although she had co-starred on Chico and the Man, Charlie and Company and The Royal Family.

Reese was a TV groundbreaker, according to the Television Academy: She was the first African-American woman to host her own talk show, Della, which aired from 1969-70, and in 1970 became the first black woman to be tapped as a guest host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

It was Touched by an Angel that endeared her to viewers, although the drama wasn’t an instant hit. 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 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 said. “I know heaven has a brand-new angel this day.”

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Over the years, Reese appeared on shows including Night Court, L.A. Law, Designing Women, Welcome Back, Kotter, The A-Team, MacGyver, The Love Boat and, more recently, That’s So Raven. She appeared in the 2005 movie Beauty Shop and had a prominent role in the 1989 film Harlem Nights.

In one memorable Harlem Nights scene, Reese and Eddie Murphy face-off in a bare-knuckled brawl after Murphy’s character accuses Reese’s Vera of stealing.

“C’mon sucka, let’s get it on,” Vera snarls, then decks him.

Reese complained in her 1997 autobiography, Angels Along the Way, that until Touched by an Angel she had difficulty avoiding being typecast for TV.

“There were usually only three types I was ever considered for - the singer, the aunt or the mother (or) neighbour,” she said. “God knows how I wanted to break out of those three categories and show what else I could do as an actress.”

Reese never won a major award but she did accomplish something in her career that was the envy of many performers - longevity.

“I’ve had a hard climb, but I was meant to have longevity,” she once said. “People don’t have to stop and say, ‘Whatever happened to Della Reese?’ Here I am.”

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Reese is survived by her husband and three children. 

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