The story of how ‘Touched by an Angel’ got its wings and became one of TV’s biggest shows
Twenty-six years ago this month, Martha Williamson smashed a hole in the stained-glass ceiling of prime-time television when she debuted a God-infused drama series starring a white angel who spoke with an Irish lilt and her Black supervisor, who spoke with equal measure sass and reverence, sang like a heavenly host and drove a red Cadillac convertible.
Over its nine-year run, “Touched by an Angel” would reach upwards of 25 million viewers a week, becoming one of the top shows in the CBS stable.
As its head writer and executive producer, Williamson asked the tough questions, like where was God when your baby died, when skinheads tore up a synagogue, when racial injustice turned deadly. And why, why, why?
“We had to ask that question right off the bat or else no one was going to trust us,” Williamson told me in a telephone interview from her Pasadena, California, home.
Williamson says the message of “Touched by an Angel” wasn’t that God was going to fix things, but that God was going to help you get through it. Its theology was a trinity, of sorts: “God exists; God loves you; God wants to be part of your life.”
Williamson adds, “And at some point, you have decisions to make in your life because God gave you free will.”
Episodes were uplifting even when the topics — from suicide to AIDS — were painful. A white dove became the signature closing scene, a punctuation mark of peace and hope.
But the story of how Williamson and her angels came to be part of our weekly existence for nearly a decade (and continues on in reruns) is a bit miraculous.
‘Recycled dead people’
After watching the $2 million proposed pilot, which she was not part of making, Williamson told CBS brass she was not wowed. If they wanted her to take over the reins of the series, they needed to start fresh. She only wanted to keep two things from that original script — the word angel in the title and the actors, Roma Downey and Della Reese.
CBS wanted to do a show about angels after reading a Newsweek story about how belief in angels was all the rage. But the pilot wasn’t testing well so they approached Williamson, who already had script-writing credits on shows like “The Facts of Life” and “Jack’s Place.” They also knew she went to church. “I’m absolutely certain CBS reached out to me because they knew I was a Christian, and I took my faith seriously,” she says.
In the original pilot, Williams was disturbed because angels were “recycled dead people.” One angel even brought a dog back to life.
To her, angels are messengers of God, created specifically for that purpose. “What I don’t believe is that we die and then we have to accomplish something to get our wings and then a bell tinkles,” she says.
And bringing something back to life? That was way above an angel’s pay grade.
So she made her pitch. She shared a survey about how most Americans believe in a higher power. “And then I said, ‘You can capture a lot of those if you just take the God that people share, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That very God is worshipped by Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Why make something up when you’ve got so much to draw directly from those faiths?’”
And just like every successful series has a bible, a guidebook of characters and rules, she already had one. “Just go to the Bible and see how angels are depicted. You’ve got a world of potential right there. They bring messages. They bring hope. They bring healing. They fight battles. As long as there are people, there will be stories.”
On Sept. 21, 1994, the first episode aired, with Reese — already a well-known, Grammy-nominated artist — singing the theme song, “Walk with You.” We were introduced to Monica (Downey), an angel who had just been promoted from search-and-rescue to case worker, and to Tess (Reese), her supervising angel.
In the beginning, TV reviewers weren’t exactly touched. Several, including our own critic, wrote less-than-flattering reviews. CBS wasn’t going to renew it for a second year — but fans mounted an impressive letter-writing campaign and the show was given a reprieve.
Popularity soared in its third season, when “Touched by an Angel” landed on a prime Sunday evening slot, becoming the highest-ranked drama on CBS and in the top 10 of Nielsen ratings.
Guest stars read like a who’s who of contemporary Americana, including civil rights icon Rosa Parks, boxer Muhammad Ali and writer Maya Angelou, who penned a special poem for her episode. Other celebrities included Patty Duke, Neil Patrick Harris, Celine Dion, Randy Travis, Wynonna Judd and younger versions of Paul Walker and Jack Black.
Along the way, Williamson added actor John Dye to the ensemble, in the role of Andrew, the angel of death, and later, Valerie Bertinelli was created (literally) as Gloria, a novice angel.
The show spawned a spin-off, “Promised Land,” making Williamson the first woman to be the sole executive producer of two one-hour dramas simultaneously. Oprah interviewed her. So did Larry King and Ed Bradley. In Bradley’s “60 Minutes” interview, he prodded her about whether she was using the show to get people to believe in God. Her response: “I think it’s a nice dividend.”
Today, she insists she was not proselytizing. “I never walked into CBS and said I can’t wait to do a show about angels,” she says. “They asked me. And so I chose the best message I possibly could that angels could bring.”
If it encouraged people and got them thinking about their own faith journey, that was fine. “But never did I say, let’s use this show to convert people to Christianity. Never did. That’s assuming an awful lot about my ability.”
Williamson, who describes herself as a born-again Christian, was well aware that the series was coming on board during the rise of the Christian right.
“I made it very clear throughout the series that God was not a Republican or a Democrat,” she says. “God was not right or left. We were very careful to make sure that nobody would hijack this show.”
Could it work now?
Maria Elena de las Carreras is a Fulbright scholar from Argentina and a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (she also teaches in the Department of Cinema and Television Arts at Cal State Northridge).
De las Carreras, who watched several episodes before we spoke, was impressed by the strong writing and themes.
“It’s not a theological show. It’s a show that is interested in coming up with one message, well-tailored, to a large constituency, which is God loves you,” she says. “And so it’s not a show to help you solve anything, but through the angels you get to see that you have to fulfill your responsibility as a person, to yourself and to all those around you.”
She noticed that many episodes were about death. “It doesn’t sugarcoat anything. It tells you in these difficult moments of life, remember that God loves you.” She praises the show for “creating a space for that conversation about God and for the understanding of religion.”
But de las Carreras questions if Williamson could replicate this series in today’s intensely divided, intensely polarized, times. “I think she would find herself boxed into categories that are not only one-dimensional but also exclude a non-Woke interpretation.”
When I asked Williamson if she thinks the show could make a comeback, she doesn’t hesitate.
“We dealt with homosexuality, we dealt with abortion, we dealt with hate crime. We had Rosa Parks asking truly difficult questions in the wake of a terrific hate crime that was taken right out of the headlines.”
In 2003, with failing ratings, CBS dropped the series.
TV legend Carol Burnett introduced the last episode, which featured tears and hugs, along with an appearance by Satan — and Jesus.
Williamson took a hiatus from TV to raise her two young daughters. Dye and Reese, an ordained minister and founder of a church in Inglewood, are no longer with us. Downey and her husband, television producer Mark Burnett, (“Survivor” and “The Apprentice”) are considered a Christian power couple in the entertainment industry.
Reruns of the series can be found on CBS All Access and on the Hallmark Drama channel, where Williamson also writes and produces a series called “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” about postal detectives who deliver lost mail to recipients when it’s needed most.
As I worked on this piece, my granddaughter’s bachelor’s degree arrived quietly in the mail — without pomp, because of the circumstances. Her mother is finally back at work in her salon after more than five jobless months — and like so many others, is still awaiting her first unemployment check.
COVID has not been vanquished. Violence and racial unrest continue to blister the country. So does a partisan atmosphere that is just plain toxic.
Perhaps we could all stand to be touched by an angel right about now. Just maybe not the angel of death.