Della Reese, the husky-voiced singer and actress who spent almost a decade playing a down-to-earth heavenly messenger on the CBS series “Touched by an Angel” and became an ordained minister in real life, died on Sunday night at her home in Encino, Calif. She was 86.
Delloreese Patricia Early was born on July 6, 1931, in Detroit. Her mother, the former Nellie Mitchelle, was a domestic worker and her father, Richard, a steelworker, but there were early signs that their daughter might occupy a completely different world.
When Delloreese was 13, Mahalia Jackson heard her sing at a Baptist church and invited the girl to join her gospel-choir tour.
Her big break was a one-week engagement at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit, which she won in a contest that asked newspaper readers to vote for their favorite local singer. That one week turned into months, a manager spotted her, and she soon moved to New York, where she became a vocalist with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra. Although her biggest hits came in her youth, she continued to record well into her 60s and received a Grammy Award nomination for her 1998 gospel album,“My Soul Feels Better Right Now.”
Ms. Reese made her television acting debut as a nightclub owner on the police series “The Mod Squad” in 1968. She went on to appear in scores of television movies and series, including the 1970s sitcom “Chico and the Man,” in which she had a recurring role, and the 1991-92 series “The Royal Family,” which ended shortly after the death of her co-star Redd Foxx.
Feature films were not a major part of her career — she appeared in fewer than a dozen — but she considered her role as a 1920s madam in Eddie Murphy’s “Harlem Nights” (1989) pivotal because it proved she could play a character different from the ones she had in the past. She told The Ottawa Citizen in 1997, “For a long time, I was the woman who owned the club where the star came in after he broke up with his girlfriend.”
Her death was confirmed by her manager, Lynda Bensky. She did not specify the cause but said that Ms. Reese had diabetes.