Counting Her Blessings

updated 02/24/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

An ordained minister who isn't just acting

DELLA REESE HATES THE COLD. "Being wrapped up in heavy coats makes me feel like a Michelin Man," she says. But 104°F heat is equally unbearable. And so, after several hours filming her hit CBS series Touched by an Angel on a sweltering summer day in the desert outside Salt Lake City in 1994, Reese suddenly halted production, gazed at the blue sky and made her pitch. " 'Lord,' " executive producer Martha Williamson recalls Reese saying, " 'we're hot. We need a cloud.' " Within 15 minutes the sky turned gray. "I'm not exaggerating," she says. "With Della, you don't just get one cloud, you get a sky filled with clouds."

Having a hot line to heaven helps. As Tess, a seasoned seraph who takes Monica, a rookie angel (played by Roma Downey), under her wing, the smoky-voiced Reese, 65, gets to dispatch faith, hope and wisdom to people at a crossroads in their lives. Unabashedly inspirational, the show barely survived the critics' scorn after its premiere in 1994. But after some changes—producers clipped Reese and Downey's computerized wings and focused the scripts on family values—Touched has become a regular on the Nielsen Top 20. "I always knew the show would be a hit," says Reese, relaxing in the Salt Lake City condo she rents with her third husband, producer Franklin Lett Jr. "But nobody believed me."

Keeping the faith is Reese's full-time passion. For 14 years she has served as minister of Los Angeles's Understanding Principles for Better Living, which she founded in 1983. "I quit going to church because I was tired of hearing I was doomed," says Reese, who graduated from Chicago's Johnnie Colemon Institute, a divinity school. "I wanted a positive message. I prayed to God to send me a minister. He told me to do it myself." Now, each Friday, she and Lett fly to L.A., where she delivers a Sunday sermon to her 350-member congregation before returning to Salt Lake City that night. "Reverend Della is quite a bit like her character on TV," says parishioner Bill Hall, a writer. "You really do feel the love in her message."

Growing up on Detroit's impoverished east side, Deloreese Patricia Early had been a churchgoer since birth and at age 6 joined the choir at her local Baptist church. The only child of Nellie, a cook, and Richard Early, a steelworker, Reese was 13 when she caught the attention of gospel diva Mahalia Jackson when she performed at the church in 1945. Impressed, Jackson hired the teenager to tour with her troupe. Over their three summers together, Reese learned some hard lessons. "When I was with Mahalia and I couldn't use the public bathrooms, I had to go squat behind a bush. It was very insulting to me," she says. "Insulting because they were stupid enough to make me do that."

With the money she earned and help from her family, Reese enrolled at Detroit's Wayne State University in 1947 but dropped out the next year after her mother died from a cerebral hemorrhage. At odds with her father, Reese moved out in 1949, supporting herself on $23 a week singing at a Detroit bowling alley. Two years later, in a contest, she won a one-week engagement at Detroit's Flame Showbar, where such greats as Ella Fitzgerald performed. An instant hit, Reese saw her run extended for 18 weeks—and her name shortened to Della so it would fit on the marquee.

In 1954, Reese landed a record contract, and three years later she released "And That Reminds Me," which sold over a million copies. Soon she was appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and headlining in Las Vegas. Still, says Reese, she "had to stay in hotels on the other side of town." Livid over such mistreatment, Ed Sullivan and his wife took Reese to several of the Strip's finest restaurants. "You should have seen the faces when I walked into those places," she says, chuckling. "I was the only black person, and there wasn't a damn thing they could do. He was Ed Sullivan."

Over the next 30 years, in addition to singing gigs, Reese was a regular on TV sitcoms like Chico and the Man and Charlie & Co. and had roles in such films as 1989's Harlem Nights. Her most memorable appearance, though, occurred while taping a segment for The Tonight Show in 1980. Belting out "Pieces of Dreams," "I hit the worst note I've ever sung," Reese recalls, "and fell to the floor." An aneurysm had burst in her brain. She almost died, but Reese credits her surgeon and her faith with pulling her through. Lett was a help too. They had met two years before, when they discussed doing a commercial. They clicked, but Lett, recently divorced and the father of two, was reluctant to marry again. "I was in protective mode," he says. Reese had fewer qualms. After two failed marriages, according to Reese, she was single and content until "one morning I woke up, and everything about me needed a man." The couple, who wed in '82, now live part-time in a ranch house in Bel Air, Calif., not far from Reese's two children—Deloreese Daniels (also known as Della), who works for a theatrical agency, and her adopted son James Barger, a psychiatrist.

Now, with plans to star in a movie life story of her mentor Mahalia Jackson, Reese is on a roll. Known as a serial hugger on the Angel set, she says, "I've made it a love place." Just ask costar Downey, 33. She and director David Anspaugh were married by Reverend Della in 1995, and Reese is godmother to their daughter, Reilly Marie, 8 months. "Della has had quite the life," says Downey. "I'm glad her journey took her to us."

As for Reese, she has no regrets. "I've had a hard climb," she says. "But I was meant to have longevity. People don't have to stop and ask, 'Whatever happened to Della Reese?' Here I am."

CATHY FREE in Salt Lake City

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