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The story of how 'Touched by an Angel' got its wings and became one of TV's biggest shows

By Sandi Dolbee, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

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.

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