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TV angel ready to spread her wings

Downey is leaving Utah, looking ahead

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Roma Downey, the recently retired TV angel, was packing up her house, surrounded by boxes and bubble wrap, but she took the phone call anyway.

"I'll take any excuse to get away from packing," she said. "If I see one more box. . . ."

With her Holladay home up for sale, she has been packing her things on and off for a month while waiting for her daughter, Reilly, to finish school. By the time you read this, they will have moved to their beach house in Malibu, Calif. — well, somebody's got to do it, she jokes.

"This month has been about saying goodbye," she says, and that includes trips to see her friends at Primary Children's Medical Center and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Downey, the petite Irish actress, is leaving because her Salt Lake-based TV show — "Touched by an Angel" — was canceled after a nine-year run. She will move on to new roles, but she will probably always be Monica, the TV angel.

For years, Downey says, people have projected the character of Monica onto her, but who can blame them when she explains her move to California by saying, "I want to come home (from work) at night and give my daughter dinner and tuck her in bed." Or when she explains the cancellation of her show by saying "Things happen for a reason." Isn't that what Monica would say?

Things happen for a reason. The cancellation of the show, she says, allowed her the time to accept an assignment with Operation Smile, the charitable organization in which doctors donate their time and skills to perform surgery on disfigured children in Third-World countries. Operation Smile asked Downey to serve on its board of governors as well as host a program that will be filmed in Vietnam, beginning next month.

"They asked me if I would make a televised fund-raising video," she says. "To add authenticity to it, it was suggested that I come with them on this mission. Instead of me being in a pristine studio, I will be on the field with them. I will experience the process over there, and the public will take that journey with me. I will be the eyes and ears of the public."

Among other things, the public will see what Downey calls "the heartbreaking process" of screening children for help. For every 100 children the doctors choose to help, there are hundreds who are turned away for lack of funds.

"That's the point of the fund-raiser," says Downey.

Hmmm, Downey on a goodwill mission to another world — does this sound like what's-her-name?

Downey will be there while doctors operate on cleft palates, deformities, tumors and burns, while also teaching local doctors how to do the procedures.

"Most of these people will have begged or borrowed bus fare to come for help," says Downey. "Many of those people have no idea that their problems are even curable.

"The cleft palate seems to be the most common (operation)," she continues. "If these kids had been born in this country, it would be fixed almost immediately, but that doesn't happen in the Third World countries. They tend to be ostracized in the community because there is no speech. The child has no roof in his mouth, so it's hard to eat, so they're malnourished. They are prisoners of their own bodies."

Downey will fly to Ho Chi Minh City on July 13, and from there she will be driven to a small town where she will live for two weeks.

She finds it rewarding that her celebrity status — always a strange and awkward thing for her, she says — has brought her something meaningful.

"Celebrity is such a silly thing," she says. "This is such a celebrity-driven country. Undue respect is paid to you because you've been on TV, because you're so visible and played a lovable character.

"There's a certain amount of projection onto you for the qualities that your character may or may not have. I've always been embarrassed by it. But suddenly Operation Smile gives meaning to celebrity. Suddenly, I'm grateful for the gift of celebrity because I can apply it to something worthwhile. If it can draw attention to these children, then I have to feel grateful."

That sounds like something else Monica would say.

E-MAIL: drob@desnews.com