The first time I met Della Reese, she hugged me.
It was an extraordinarily hot day in the summer of 1994. “Touched by an Angel” had not yet premiered, but the cast and crew were filming an episode at a bar on south Main Street in Salt Lake City, and I was there to do interviews.
The first thing Reese said when I went to her trailer was, “Come here and give me a hug.”
She was a rather formidable presence, and I could hardly decline.
That’s what Della Reese was like. The actress and singer died peacefully on Sunday evening, according to a statement released by her “Touched by an Angel” co-star, Roma Downey.
“Through her life and work she touched and inspired the lives of millions of people,” Downey said. “She was a mother to me and I had the privilege of working with her side by side for so many years.... I know heaven has a brand new angel this day.”
When I first interviewed Downey a short time after speaking with Reese, I asked what her first meeting with her co-star was like. Downey started to answer, then paused and asked me, “Did she hug you, too?”
She didn’t always hug me, but Reese was unfailingly kind in our many encounters during the nine years she called Utah home while starring as Tess in “Touched By an Angel” (1994-2003), filmed primarily in the Salt Lake area. That included an unplanned meeting at a toy store when both of us were Christmas shopping.
Reese approached me and, yes, there were hugs.
She was best know for “Touched,” but Reese had a long list of credits, including guest-starring roles on everything from “The Mod Squad” to “McCloud,” “Police Woman” to “The Love Boat.”
She was also a regular on “Chico and the Man” (with Freddie Prinze); “Charlie and Co.” (with Flip Wilson); and “The Royal Family” (with Redd Foxx). She was on the set of “Royal Family ” when Foxx, her on-screen husband, collapsed after suffering a heart attack and died shortly thereafter.
Before “Touched,” Reese was known primarily as a singer. Born Delloreese Patricia Earlon July 6, 1931, she grew up singing gospel music. When she was just 13, she was hired to sing with Mahlia Jackson’s gospel group. Reese’s 1959 single “Don’t You Know?” was a hit, and she toured the country.
Reese recalled performing in Salt Lake City in the 1940s, when she appeared at the Hotel Utah but was not allowed to stay there because she was African-American — she had to enter and exit through the service entrance.
She sang on TV variety shows for many years, and starred in theatrical films (including “Harlem Nights” and “Beauty Shop”) and 20 TV movies.
She hosted her own syndicated talk show, “Della,” in 1969-70 — the first African-American woman to do so, 17 years before Oprah Winfrey followed in her footsteps.
Reese was also an ordained minister who led a congregation in Los Angeles. She officiated at Downey’s 2007 wedding to TV producer Mark Burnett.
Reese is survived by her husband, Franklin Lett, and three children.