SAN ANTONIO • The uplifting television series, “Touched By An Angel,” almost didn’t make it past lift-off, as its head writer/executive producer Martha Williamson revealed in a telephone interview prior to the release of two new DVD collections drawn from the popular show that ran from 1994 to 2003 and garnered 11 Emmy nominations.
The original pilot by the show’s creator, it turns out, had a much darker slant on angels among us and was finally turned over to Williamson to re-do from scratch.
“I remember saying to CBS,” she says, “You are offending the very audience you’re trying to attract.” In that first pilot, the wonderful real-life chemistry between actresses Roma Downey and Della Reese (portraying angels Monica and Tess) was glaringly absent, she recalled, with the pair depicted as adversaries and “recycled dead people.” “And they argued and swore and smoked,” she says ruefully, “and it was just antithetical to anything I believed in.”
“Well, you go to church. What do you think?” network executives asked Williamson. Her advice was they ought first to check out what the Bible has to say about angels and they were only too happy to turn things over to her from there.
Williamson believes the immense popularity of the series stemmed from the increasingly complicated and fast-paced world we live in, where people communicate in “tweets” and instantly upload and download on the Internet. The amount of time it takes for us as human beings to deal with emotional issues cannot be processed that fast though, and hearts can become lost in this gap.
“‘Touched By An Angel’ is one of those places where you could go on a Sunday night and hear that God loves you,” she says, “to hear that you’re not alone, to know that you have a place to go.” And when the show is over, she adds, “God will still be there.”
Williams, a native of Denver, came from a faith-based background and got her start as a screenwriter in Los Angeles working for the “Carol Burnette Show.” However, she had her share of “dark nights of the soul” along the way to touching the hearts of countless viewers through the stories her angel characters brought to life.
“I think that’s why I can be so upbeat now,” she says, “because there were times, certainly early in my career especially, when I just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.” She found it hard to imagine ever be given the opportunity to write the way she wanted to and succeed in Hollywood. On top of that, she was lonely, unmarried and in her 30s, she recalls, and facing the challenges of being a single woman in the Hollywood milieu.
What sustained her were friends, “wonderful people who prayed for me and with me,” she relates. She remembers clinging especially to the verse in Psalms that proclaims, “Your recovery will spring forth, and you will become like a watered garden whose waters do not fail.”
The verse reminded her that God has a purpose for everything, and indeed he had, for it was the rough patches she encountered along the way that provided thoughtful fodder for some of her scripts. “If life had been continually upbeat for me,” she says, ‘Touched By An Angel’ would not have been quite as interesting.”
Today, she is happily married and the mother of two daughters, ages 8 and 10, having decided at the end of the series run to take time off to devote to her family. Her daughters were adopted in China and of that she says, “We just knew that’s what the Lord wanted us to do.” In fact, she believes their precious and unique Irish/Danish/Chinese family was God’s plan for her from the start. (Williamson’s ancestry is Irish, her husband’s, Danish.)
In each of the show’s angels she can see characteristics of her parents ? and herself. “The angel, Tess, was very much like my mother,” she says of Della Reese’s character, “and Roma (angel Monica) reminded me a lot of the person I wanted to be ? not necessarily the person I succeeded in being!” The Angel of Death, John Dye, brought to mind the gentle, loving ways of her father.
Williamson is pretty certain angels have personally touched her life a time or two. The most powerful occasion occurred after her beloved father passed away and she had gone for grief counseling. Entering the elevator after her session, she encountered a man whose aura of peace and kindness ? even in the short time she was in his presence ? recalled her late father.
But more notably, when the gentleman debarked in the bank lobby, he began singing her father’s favorite hymn, the one sung at his funeral ? “How Great Thou Art.” “I just couldn’t believe it,” Williamson remembers. “And I, to this day, wonder if that wasn’t in some form a gift from God.”
Does she have a favorite episode from the series? There are a number that are special to her, she relates, but one dear to her heart (and included in the new “Faith” DVD collection release) involved slavery in modern Sudan. Titled, “For Such A Time As This,” it had as actors former Sudanese refugees who had been held as slaves in their homeland, courageously reenacting this experience to provide accuracy in the depiction.
After the show was completed, it aired for the Senate and House in Washington just prior to the introduction of the Sudan Peace Act. “So that was a tremendously important thing,” she says. “I felt very gratified to have a little part in this.”
The two DVD sets in the “Touched By An Angel: Inspiration Collection,” which debuted in stores January 26, “Faith” and “Love,” each offer four thematic episodes personally chosen by Williamson with personal introductions by her, plus other special features. While viewers can still come across the series on the Hallmark Channel, these two collections, she notes, can fill a specific need someone has for a dose of faith or love. And just in time for Valentine’s Day!
Coinciding with the DVD collections’ release is the release of a new book written by Williamson with her husband, Jon Anderson, “Inviting God to Your Wedding and Keeping God in Your Marriage.” The book explores the traditional wedding planning details while focusing on what she says is really the most important aspect of a wedding ? the union of two souls in a bond with God.
Though taking a break career-wise, Williamson maintains a connection with both writing and angels through her Web site, atouchofencouragement.com (or MarthaWilliamson.com), where she offers “mini revelations” from God as did the angels on her show. “I don’t have that Irish accent like Roma Downey,” she says, “but I do write these little two- to three-minute meditations that encourage people for the times that we’re living now.” They remind viewers that the truths of “Touched By An Angel” are still true, she says, “because you can cancel a show, but you can’t cancel God. So whatever we were saying then still matters and still has the power to lift up and encourage people.”