Before Oprah, There Was Della Reese — the First Black Woman to Have a Nationally Syndicated Talk Show

An October 1991 photo of actress Della Reese. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)
An October 1991 photo of actress Della Reese. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)

Della Reese, a onetime gospel singer and groundbreaking African-American talk show host later known for her lead role in the TV series “Touched by an Angel,” has died at age 86.

She died on Sunday (Nov. 19), according to a statement from her series co-star Roma Downey, who shared it with People magazine.

“Heaven has a brand new angel,” Downey said on Instagram.

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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. 🕊🕊🕊🕊🕊🕊🕊🕊🕊 #touchedbyanangel #dellareese

A post shared by Roma Downey🦋 (@romadowney) on

Reese, a Detroit native, started touring as a backup singer to Mahalia Jackson when she was 13. She later added secular performances to her repertoire. Her single “Don’t You Know”— based on a waltz from the opera “La Boheme” — became a million-seller on RCA Records in 1959.

After acting in situation comedies, in the 1990s Reese began the role in “Touched by an Angel” of Tess, the senior seraph on the CBS drama, who advised Monica, her apprentice-angel played by Downey.

Downey took to social media earlier this month to describe a gathering with friends and family at Reese’s home when her acting colleague was suffering from multiple health problems.

“It’s a Full House over here!! We have a whole lotta love going on at Dellas,” Downey wrote on Instagram on Nov. 13. “All her friends and family are coming to love and honor her ….. that plus the Holy Spirit is in the house! So it’s just a grand huge love celebration for our wonderful Miss Della Reese.”

When Reese wasn’t taping the show, which aired from 1994 to 2003, she was leading a Los Angeles church called Understanding Principles for Better Living.

Asked how she juggled both roles at the time, she had a straightforward answer.

“God,” she declared during an RNS interview before a 1996 worship service. “They’re both ministries.”

She was greeted by a rousing chorus of “Good morning, Reverend Della,” by her congregation of 175 that was housed in a Masonic temple hall just south of Hollywood. It is affiliated with New Thought, a religious movement that draws on Christianity, metaphysics, and positive thinking.

The church’s celebrity connections stretched beyond Reese, with back-up singers for Smokey Robinson singing the 1979 disco classic “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and actress Linda Gray, who played Sue Ellen Ewing (J.R.’s wife) on “Dallas,” sitting among the worshippers during the 1996 service.

“We have so few female role models in life that … more than an actor or singer, she’s a true role model for me,” Gray said of Reese at the time. “She speaks the truth. She comes from her heart.”

The actress, also known as the Rev. Della Reese Lett, was married to producer Franklin Thomas Lett, who survives her, for more than 35 years.

In 1969, long before Oprah Winfrey was a household name, Reese hosted “Della,” becoming the first black woman to host a nationally syndicated talk show.

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Religion News Service