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Roma Downey: Aura of an angel

Actress’s role in TV show takes on a life of its own

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It could have been a scene straight out of "Touched by an Angel," but this was no TV show. One day a few years ago, Roma Downey, the TV actress/angel, was visiting sick infants at Primary Children's Medical Center, as she does regularly as part of her own charity work, when she found herself playing a real-life angel.

Just as she approached a set of double doors in the hallway, the doors opened and there was a dead child on a wheeled bed with the grieving parents in tow. Embarrassed, Downey wanted to flee, but she stood rooted to the floor.

"There was nowhere to go," she recalls. "They were walking into me. I felt so inappropriate. I had my red Santa hat on. I wanted the floor to swallow me up. Then the mother threw her arms around me and said, 'I prayed for an angel to come.' I prayed for something to say. Nothing came. There we were — the grandmother, the father and the mother — in one big hug. We just stood there, all of us, hugging.

"I wanted to say, 'I'm not an angel; I'm an actress.' I found myself saying nothing. Then the mother said 'thank you,' as if I had done something."

Everyone needs to be touched by an angel sometimes, so maybe it was inevitable that Roma Downey's role as Monica, the TV angel, would take on a life of its own off the camera. Or maybe it's just that Downey has played the TV role so long and so convincingly that people no longer separate her from Monica.

Heaven knows, she wanted them to.

Downey has become a friend to millions of viewers in one way or another during a nine-year run as Monica, the empathetic, wise, serene angel. Last month she taped the 200th episode of the show.

"I'm as amazed as anyone," says Downey of the show's longevity.

A decade ago, TV experts would have called the show's survival angelic intervention. The success of "Touched by an Angel" of course has far exceeded anyone's expectations. Well, almost everyone's. Co-star Della Reese, who doubles as a real-life California pastor, insisted from the start that the show would last 10 years.

"Della said God told her," says Downey.

When the show's actors were required to fill out medical insurance forms, there was a place to write in the term of their employment. Della insisted on writing 10 years, even when she was reminded there was no contractual agreement with the show for 10 years.

"I have a contractual agreement," she said.

After a rocky first year, the show's popularity soared and remained that way until last year when a new time slot hurt its ratings, but the show endures. It is an aberration, an unabashedly sentimental island in a violent, sex-obsessed, cynical medium.

"It's a feel-good show," says Downey. "It's hopeful. If it errs, it does so on the side of being sentimental. But it's well intended and comes from the heart."

And all these years later, the charm and the face of the show remain Downey, the 39-year-old Irish actress who could have used her own Monica while surviving two divorces, the death of both parents and a youth spent on the front lines of the bloody violence in her native Northern Ireland. Perhaps it was a guardian angel who intervened the day a bullet ripped through her clothing.

With prodding from her late father, she found an escape from her war-torn homeland through her acting the same way athletes escape from a hardscrabble existence through sports. And somehow she wound up here, far from her native Derry City and her family and her beloved ocean, with a daughter, a career in American television and the aura of an angel.

The first thing you notice about Downey when you meet her for the first time is that she is tiny — 5-foot-4, 110 pounds, a size 2/4 — a fine-boned woman with ivory skin, dark brown eyes and auburn hair cut to shoulder length.

"Second to 'My mother loves your show,' my favorite comment is, 'Oh, you're so much smaller than I thought,' " says Downey. "I'm itty bitty. If I put a baseball hat on and keep my mouth shut, I can be another mom at the mall."

Downey was relaxing in her trailer between takes of the show in downtown Salt Lake City. Music was playing in the background and she was studying a holiday catalog when a visitor arrived.

"You're saving me money," she says rising to shake hands. "If you weren't here, I'd be on the phone ordering things from the catalog."

She was here before the sun came up. Every morning, a car picks her up at her house at 5:30. She climbs into the car with wet hair, fresh from the shower, so she is ready to have it styled. She is served breakfast, and while her hair is blow-dried she studies her lines.

"My memory is so well used, it's gotten pretty good," she says. "I've gotten fast, but it's short term. If we had to shoot tomorrow, it's gone."

She gets her first set call at 8 a.m. Between takes, she hangs out in a fully furnished trailer, reading, talking on the phone, watching TV and shopping the catalogs. She usually goes home in the evening, after a 12-hour day.

It's a fairly demanding schedule for a single mother, and Downey considered leaving the show a couple of years ago to spend more time at home. But the show wrote another co-star, Valerie Bertinelli, into the script, which meant less camera time for Monica. When Bertinelli is on the screen pursuing a B story line, Downey can go home to Reilly.

"Before, all the stories were told from my point of view," says Downey. "Even if I wasn't in a scene, the camera would stray to the side to see Monica watching. So I still had to come into the set, go through makeup and hair . . . "

The show has had to accommodate her in other ways, as well. When Downey was pregnant, the show decided the world wasn't ready for a pregnant angel. That meant going to great lengths to hide her pregnancy from the cameras, which involved a lot of standing behind car doors and holding a coat over her arm to cover her stomach.

"Meanwhile, my face was expanding," says Downey.

She worked on the set until May 1, had the baby on June 3 and was back to work a month later. It got tricky. She nursed Reilly for a year, which required pumping milk in the trailer.

Says Downey, "They'd come to the door, 'Roma, we're ready.' I'd whisper, 'I just need 10 minutes.' Then I'd hear him talking on the walkie-talkie outside the trailer — 'Roma needs 10 minutes; she's pumping!' I'd walk to the set sure that everyone was looking at my you-know-whats."

Reilly, 6, is a regular visitor to the set and a physical reminder of the passing of time to members of the crew and cast. "They all remember her as a bump," says Downey.

Reilly is tended by a live-in nanny who has been with her since infancy. "We're so lucky," says Downey. "She's a wonderful girl. I interviewed a lot of girls. They were all sweet and nice, but they all had an eye on showbiz, like maybe this was a stepping stone."

She has tried to keep Reilly's life as "normal" as possible, but it isn't always easy with people fawning over her mother and waiting for limo rides.

"Reilly is very territorial with me," says Downey. "She's aware of when it's her time. There's no nanny on weekends. Those are 'mommy days.' If someone approaches us in a mall, she'll say, 'This is mommy, not TV mommy.' "

There is a knock on the side of the trailer and a voice on the other side of the door says it's time to report to the set. Stepping outside, she is met by security guards and assistants, as well as Reese, who stays in the trailer next door between takes. Reese is an effusive woman with a penchant for hugging. She and Downey have been close friends since they met on the set of "Touched by an Angel." Reese, godmother to Reilly, is a maternal figure for Downey, who lost her mother when she was 10.

"When we met, it was like Della had been given to me as a mother," says Downey. "What you see on the screen is echoed off the screen. It's a very loving relationship. It was instant. The moment we met there was something — a recognition of souls, like we had known each other. She has given me great counsel. There is no safer place in the world than in the arms of Della. Reilly adores her. Of course she spoils her rotten. Last Christmas she gave her a violin and lessons."

Outside the trailer, Della wants to show Downey something. She extracts a small white box from her pocket and opens it to reveal a pair of diamond earrings — a Christmas gift for Reilly.

"I told you she spoils Reilly," Downey says, turning to her visitor.

"I'm not spoiling her; I've just got a lot of love for her," Reese replies.

Later, Reese says, "I love her (Downey) very much, like a mother and daughter. It's as if we knew each other some time before. We get together whenever we can."

They are escorted across the parking lot into a large, warehouse-like building. Della takes the elevator, but Downey opts for the stairs. Apparently, this is worth reporting to headquarters, as if they are a pair of space shuttles on final approach.

"Della's coming up the elevator; Roma's coming up the stairs," one of the escorts says into a walkie-talkie. "They'll be there in a couple of minutes."

They are escorted onto the set, past a large spread of food laid out on a table — "I close my eyes when I walk past that," says Downey. She goes through several takes inside a small faux bedroom constructed inside the building. Between takes, Downey steps behind the camera to return to her interview.

Downey is no real-life angel, but there are parts of her in Monica's character. The show's writers took many of her traits and quirks and worked them into the script. Downey, for instance, has a predilection for going barefooted — and so does Monica. Downey loves coffee — so does Monica. Downey can't sing a note — and neither can Monica.

"I'm one of the few Irish people who can't sing," she says. "I was actually kicked out of an angelic choir (as a child) because I can't sing. The writers said let's use it."

Oh, yes, and there's one other similarity: Downey says she believes in God and angels — and of course so does Monica. Downey's brother is a Catholic priest — "We call him 'Father-Brother,' " she says — and she attended a Catholic school for 13 years.

"I'm convent-educated," she says. "I attended Sisters of Mercy, or, as we called the nuns, Sisters of No Mercy."

The show would do well to borrow material from Downey's own life for lessons on family and religion and carrying on with life under trying circumstances. There is one scene from her childhood that stands out vividly all these years later.

One day Roma put on a red cape and accompanied her aunt to visit the local cemetery. While they were there, a gunbattle broke out and, to their horror, they found themselves in the middle of it. The gunmen shouted to them to hide behind the headstones, which they did as bullets sang over their heads. After the shooting stopped, they made their way home. When Roma took off her cape she found a bullet hole in its hood.

The background music of her life were explosions and gunfire and bomb scares. Violence was a routine part of life in Derry City, Northern Ireland, as the battle between Protestants and Catholics raged. It was nothing out of the ordinary to hide behind cars on the way home from school to avoid gunfire. Bullets and gas canisters crashed through the windows of the Downeys' row house. Like everyone else, they kept the home dark at night and put boards over the windows. Downey's father would occasionally write notes to her teachers: "Please excuse Roma's absence. She was up all night because of the shooting.' "

They went about their lives as normally as possible, but Roma's father made one rule: She had to carry a 50-pence piece in her shoe and call when she heard bombs to let him know she was all right.

"We all became little experts on bombs," Downey recalls. "We'd say, 'Oh, that one is only five miles away.' If we had a dance or a party to go to and there was trouble, we'd find our way around it and hold the dance. We knew nothing else. It was normal."

It wasn't until she moved to England, during a trip to the grocery store, that she fully realized it wasn't normal at all. As she walked out of the store, a car backfired and in an instant she instinctively put her nose to the sidewalk, her groceries scattering everywhere.

"Afterward, I just sat there and cried for the first time," she recalls. "All the blood and pain and fear — I had internalized it."

Roma, whose name is a combination of her grandmothers' names, Mary and Rose, was the youngest of six children. Her father, Patrick "Paddy" Downey, a schoolteacher, had four children by his first wife, and then she died. He had two more children with his second wife, Maureen, and the last of these was Roma. When Roma was 10, her mother died of a heart attack.

"It was as if a light went out," says Downey. "It created a huge void."

As Downey came of age, her father urged her to leave Ireland because of the violence, telling her, "Your education is your passport out." Times had changed since he had raised his other five children, who were grown by then.

"I wanted to stay with my old father," she says. "I had already lost one parent. He said, 'You will go; I will take you.' "

He bought two plane tickets and delivered her to London. She studied painting at Brighton Art College, but eventually gravitated to drama. After graduating from Brighton, she studied acting at the London Drama School. Then came a great turning point in her life.

The night before she was to fly home to see her brother's ordination as a priest, she talked to her father on the phone. "I'm looking forward to you coming home," he told her. "I'll put your favorite yellow flannel sheets on the indoor line." Later that night she received another call from her brother — "Come home on the same plane anyway, but we thought you should know Da' is dead."

Arriving in Derry, she found the town decked out in bunting to celebrate the ordination of her brother, and there was a black bow on the front door of her home.

"My father was laid out in his coffin in the sitting room," says Downey. "My sister said, 'Come in and look at him.' I told her I wasn't ready yet. I wanted to get a cup of tea. I opened the kitchen door, and what did I see? The yellow flannel sheets hanging from the indoor line. It was a last act of kindness. I put my face in the sheets and sobbed.

"I loved my father. He was a great man. He used to say, 'Remember, when you're burying me and your heart is breaking, if you can do that you can do anything.' So our little house was sold. I have nothing. I'm 20 years old. I have a room in London. Nothing to fall back on. I don't think I could've emigrated to the U.S. if my father had been alive."

After her father's death, she married an American classmate and moved to New York City. By 1989, they were divorced, and Downey was finding only occasional acting jobs. Rex Harrison chose her for a role in the Broadway production of "The Circle," and she won the title role in the TV mini-series "A Woman Named Jackie," but during the intervening two years she worked as a hat-check girl in a New York restaurant and auditioned for commercials.

In 1994, she got what would prove to be the break of a lifetime, landing the starring role in "Touched by an Angel." She moved to Salt Lake City, married a producer, had a baby, divorced after four years of marriage, and settled into a large home in Holladay, with regular weekend jaunts to a second home in Malibu, Calif., to indulge her love of the ocean.

She makes a reported $3 million a year. She usually spends her summers starring in and producing a movie. Along with Reilly, her nanny and her hairdresser, she spent last summer in the south of France making a movie.

"Being an actress has given me a wonderful life, many blessings," she says. "I'm far from manor born, but now I live in the manor. It's not like this came to me when I was 18. I was in my 30s. My values and sense of self are deeply in place. I don't take this for granted. To do what you love to do and get paid and it has a purpose."

Her five siblings all live within a 30-mile radius of Derry. Her two sisters are homemakers, and her three brothers are an electrician, a priest and a schoolteacher. They watch her TV show in Ireland, but they are a few seasons behind. Her sisters visited her in Salt Lake City once and while shopping in a grocery store they spotted Roma's picture on the cover of several magazines.

"That brought squeals of delight," says Downey. "They were shouting, 'Look, it's our wee Roma!' I have great regret that Mother and Father were not alive to see the return of their kindnesses. I had a wonderful childhood."

She tries to return annually to Ireland, but she confesses, "It's not restful. You've got to visit that wee woman that lived next door to Grandma and go around everywhere you used to go, and of course you have to have a cup of tea — the solution to everything in Ireland."

She hears it all the time: People thanking her for "Touched by an Angel." They thank her for its message, for its sweetness, for providing a show a family can watch together without blood and blue language.

"Believe me, there's already a lot of cynicism," she says. "Look around. The central theme in every episode (of "Touched by an Angel") is there is a God; he loves you and wants to be part of your life."

People have a special affinity for Monica/Downey. Perfect strangers hug her on the street or in the mall.

"I come into your house and your room, and it creates a false intimacy," says Downey. "And when you play an empathetic character, they fall in love with you. I get a lot of touching, a lot of hugs. At first it was a little overwhelming. But they're just people who have been touched. They just want to be touched by an angel."

It took getting used to. When the woman in Primary Children's Medical Center embraced her, thinking she was the angel she had prayed for, Downey was so rattled that she retreated to her home and called Reese.

"I felt bad," she told Reese. "She thought I was something I wasn't."

"She needed you," said Reese.

"I said nothing," said Downey.

"You were meant to say nothing. If you had said something, it would've been wrong."

"But she thought God sent me," said Downey.

"And who said He didn't," said Reese.

That conversation helped Downey accept her off-screen role. Looking back now she says, "I was concerned that I would be thought of as a phony. But in a moment like that, I represent something they needed. And if it helps them, fantastic. If just being there helps, that's the least I can do. And if I am being used by God, it would be my privilege."

While visiting sick babies in the hospital on another occasion, she came across an infant in an incubator who had had open heart surgery. The parents weren't there, but Downey was so moved by the child that she had someone take a Polaroid picture of herself with the baby. She left the picture by the baby with a note: "While you were gone, your baby was touched by an angel."

Years later, she was shooting a scene in Salt Lake City when a security guard approached her and held out a Polaroid picture. It was the picture of her with the baby. The guard pointed to a couple behind the rope. They were waving madly to get her attention — a mother and father and a robust 4-year-old boy. They had come to say thank you.

"I'm not an angel," says Downey. "I know that. But I do seem to embody that. It's what the show represents. It represents a good feeling. It has great personal rewards."

E-mail: drob@desnews.com