THE MERE SIGHT OF ACTOR JOHN DYE STRIDING through an airport unnerves many travelers. "People get a little funky," Dye says. "Eyes get big as saucers. People are like, 'When's the next flight?' " Understandable reactions. After all, to the millions who tune in each week to the Top 10 CBS series Touched by an Angel, Dye is Andrew, the kindly, compassionate yet inexorable Angel of Death.

Not everyone is undone. Last March at a passenger lounge in Salt Lake City, where Angel is filmed, a man came up to Dye: "I wish I could let you know how important [your show] is to us," he said. A little later the man's wife approached the flaxen-haired actor. "She told me, 'My husband has cancer,' " Dye, 34, recalls. " 'He was in remission for a long time, but it's come back. Your show has helped us deal with what might be inevitable.' "

That reaction is not uncommon. "People write to me saying, 'You changed my life,' " says Dye, who calls his role "a big responsibility." His colleagues insist he's up to it. Dye's costar Roma Downey says, "I can't tell you how many letters I get that say, 'When it's time, I hope somebody like Andrew comes for me.' And that has a lot to do with John. He has such a gentle face for death, he takes some of the fear out of it."

Offscreen as well as on. Gail O'Grady (former NYPD Blue secretary Donna Abandando), who once dated Dye, recalls that when a mutual friend was dying of AIDS in 1988, Dye "was always at the hospital. He put his whole life on hold. I'd never seen anybody there for somebody like John was."

Dye downplays the sacrifice. "He was like my big brother," Dye notes of the friend. "It was really tough to watch him go." Says Delia Reese, who plays fellow seraph Tess: "John has charms, he has grace," she says. "He's a true Southern gentleman."

Dye, in fact, hails from Amory Miss., where his parents, Jim, a furniture manufacturer, and Lynn, a homemaker, raised him and his two younger brothers as devout Methodists. "Church was always part of our life," the actor says. "I was a good kid. I was pretty focused."

On acting, mostly. At 17, as a high school senior in Tupelo, Miss, (near Elvis's birthplace), where the family had relocated, Dye costarred in South Pacific. But after graduating in 1981, Dye studied law at Mississippi State University. "I wanted to save the world and work for the ACLU," he explains. By 1983, he says, "I realized I really missed acting. I walked into my dad's office and said, 'Here's the gig—I think I'm gonna go to drama school' "

To his surprise, both of his parents approved. At the University of Memphis, Dye landed lead roles in school plays like Enter Laughing and Private Lives, as well as a part in the 1984 Judd Nelson comedy Making the Grade. Emboldened, Dye dropped out of school and landed in Hollywood, where his frat-boy looks won him parts in other comedies—'87's Campus Man and '89's Big Man on Campus—and the role on CBS's Tour of Duty of a pacifist Vietnam grunt-turned-junkie.

By the time he was Touched by an Angel in 1996, he says, "I was tired. I was working nonstop and wasn't digging what was coming my way." Out of the blue, Martha Williamson, Angel's executive producer, who had met Dye on a 1994 summer series, Hotel Malibu (he played a slick womanizer), asked him to sign on as Andrew. "I thought, 'The Angel of Death? Excuse me?' " says Dye. But after screening a few episodes, he says, "I liked how uplifting and different this [show] was. It was really right for my heart."

Though currently unattached and living alone in a cozy Studio City house, Dye is dead set on settling down. "I pull well with a double harness," he says. Costar Downey approves. "I think he's ready for love," she says. "He blushed a lot when Priscilla Presley was on the show [last winter]. John," she adds devilishly, "blushes beautifully."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
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