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Heavenly Rewards : A HIT SERIES AND A NEW BABY FOR ROMA DOWNEY: 'THIS IS THE TIME OF MY LIFE'

July 07, 1996|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The angels seem to be smiling down on Roma Downey.

Last month, the Irish actress and her husband, director David Anspaugh ("Hoosiers"), were blessed with a daughter, Reilly Marie. And on the professional front, Downey's CBS series, "Touched By an Angel," has defied all the odds. A victim of negative reviews, frequent preemptions and low ratings in its first season, it performed a miracle in its second year, becoming an unqualified hit in the Saturdays at 9 p.m. graveyard slot.

Since the series more than earned its wings, the network has rewarded its "Angel" by moving it this fall into Angela Lansbury's high-profile time period of Sundays at 8 p.m.

"It's a perfect night for the show," Downey says. "The hour earlier will definitely work to our advantage. The fans will respond because more kids are up at that hour and more people are home on Sundays, as a general rule. More people will be able to watch."

Downey is thrilled with her new role of mother. She and Anspaugh are "over the moon" with joy about Reilly--"She's everything we hoped for and then some."

Even two months before the birth, she seemed to be floating on a cloud of happiness. "Isn't it fantastic?," Downey, 33, said of her good fortune. "I could truly say, this is the time of my life."

Mind you, playing a virginal angel while pregnant was a bit of a challenge. And though exhausted after doing 22 shows, Downey filmed two episodes for the fall season before giving birth, so she could spend more time with Reilly.

"It was either that or come back early in July, which really wasn't an option for me," Downey explains over the phone from Salt Lake City, where "Angel" is filmed. "I don't think I could, emotionally and physically. We are trying to get these few in the can so we have a little flexibility, so I hope they can start to ease me back in."

She is pleased that viewers have responded so strongly to the series, which, like the actress herself, has received little attention in the press. "It's been so gratifying," says Downey, adding that she and co-star Della Reese receive an enormous amount of mail weekly. "I think we are helping to fill a void. It is sending a positive message. It's letting people know that they are not alone. If that's not everybody's cup of tea, well, so what?"

Part of the reason for the show's success is due to the fact Downey and Reese are not the typical garden-variety angels. "We don't come into the situation and wave a fairy wand and make everything magically OK," Downey explains.

Because she is so young and eager, Downey's character, Monica, frequently makes mistakes. "That's what makes her a joy to play," she says. "I think I'd die of boredom [otherwise] because it would be a one-dimensional character. I think it's nice that we have sort of an inherent conflict with Monica and her personality, if you will. She is well-intended, but she's impetuous. She doesn't see the whole picture sometimes."

Downey reports there is a "genuine love" between her and Reese, who plays Monica's wise, loving superior, Tess. "What you see on the screen is what you would see off-screen if you were here," says Downey. "I can't tell you what a joy that is to have a co-star you are really, genuinely fond of. She is the universal mother."

A native of Derry, Northern Ireland, Downey was taught to believe in the existence of guardian angels while attending Roman Catholic convent school.

"At some point along the way, that guardian angel turned into a conscience for me," she said. "A child needed the image of an invisible winged creature and the young adolescent was quite happy to know it was just a voice in her head."

Not that her childhood was heavenly. Downey witnessed firsthand the violence between the Irish Republican Army and British authorities.

"I think I used the theater in school--the drama society--and even watching old black-and-white American films, as a great form of escape from the reality of the horror I was growing up through," she explained.

After convent school, Downey attended Brighton Art College to pursue a career as a painter. "While I was there, I realized that, in fact, I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be what was created, as well as the creator. I wanted to be the canvas. I wanted to be on the stage."

At the urging of her father, though, she finished school. "Parents like you to have those back-up things. I did that and promptly enrolled in drama school in London."

Named the most promising student of the year upon graduation from the London Drama School, Downey toured the United States in the Abbey Theatre production of "The Playboy of the Western World" and appeared opposite Rex Harrison on Broadway in "The Circle." Her big television break came five years ago when she was cast as Jackie Kennedy in the Emmy-winning NBC miniseries "A Woman Named Jackie."

Though she's called America home since the late '80s, Downey has returned to Ireland every year.

"It was with growing excitement and delight last year that I watched the coming together of the peace process--and then, with equal horror and alarm at the beginning of this year, watched it fall apart," Downey says with much sadness in her voice. "I am just hopeful that they can find a way over there to get back on the road again. I know for the most part that people are so sick and tired of the violence."

This summer, Downey says, it is her relatives who will probably be making the trek to visit her. "I have the perfect excuse," she says, laughing. "All roads lead back to baby. I think at some point, I will be seeing various members of the family. They will make the trip to meet the new arrival--the new star."

"Touched By An Angel" airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on CBS; this week it also airs at 8 p.m.

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