It's been 10 years since "Touched By An Angel" completed its nine-year run, but the show about an angel (Roma Downey) who brings guidance and help to everyday folks lives on in reruns, home video and the hearts of devoted fans around the world. When Martha Williamson looks back upon the nine years she spent writing and producing the imaginative, uplifting series, she recalls, "every day, I knew I was where I belonged and I knew that I was putting the talents that God had given me to their best and highest use.
"But when I became a mother," she adds, "I absolutely knew that's what I was supposed to be doing as well."
Williamson took a leap of faith, back-burnering her Hollywood career to devote herself to her husband and children for a decade. She was never completely away from show business, but only now — with her two daughters ages 11 and 13 — is she returning to the TV movie and series game. Williamson's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" debuts as a Hallmark Channel Original Movie Oct. 12, with "Ugly Betty's" Eric Mabius leading a group of self-appointed sleuths who track down long-lost mail recipients. The fanciful, comedic movie also stars Kristin Booth, Daphne Zuniga, Geoff Gustafson and Crystal Lowe — and it is a pilot for an anticipated Hallmark Channel series.
Williamson's urge to get back in harness was fueled by her own difficulty in finding TV she felt comfortable watching with her children. "I really missed making a show that ... " she pauses. "Let me put it this way, people kept asking me, 'When are you going to make a show again that we can watch with our family?'" She wrote "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" a while ago, but put it aside. As time went on, she says, it was the project that stayed in her mind above all others. She had it at CBS for a while, but although the network was encouraging, it was clear "we were going different ways," and she looked for a more suitable home. "Then I got to thinking, 'Who has more of a vested interested in the written word and envelopes than Hallmark?'"
A match made in TV heaven was made.
The erudite, elegant writer explains, during a morning's conversation, that "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" was sparked by a conversation she had with her agent, when she expressed the desire to do "something not unlike 'Touched,' in that it has the anthology feel to it, where I can go back and explore important issues, and yet I want to do an ensemble cast, and I want to be funny again. I got started on television working in variety, and then in sitcoms. I did 'Facts of Life,' for example. I missed writing comedy. So we started kicking things around and I think he was the first who actually used the phrase 'dead letter office,' or something like that."
Over time, and with a light touch, viewers will find that Mabius' character is a faithful man. Williamson is happy for the chance to show once again that characters can be people of faith without clobbering the audience over the head or resorting to stereotypes.
Mail has been important to Williamson in her own life. She recalls her family anxiously waiting days to hear from her sister, who was in Anchorage, Alaska when a 9.1 earthquake hit there in the early 1960s, and "there were no cell phones or internet. You had to make an appointment with a long-distance operator to talk to someone in Anchorage under the best of circumstances." She recalls her father's guiding light of a letter coming to her during college, typed on an old Smith Corona with a sticky letter or two. And then, reading old "Touched By An Angel" fan mail "encouraged me at a time when I wondered if I was ever going to work again. Those letters were very powerful," she says.
Certainly, putting fresh energy into her Hollywood career wasn't all bliss.
"You stay away for 10 years and all the people at the studios have different jobs now and the people you knew are gone and people who have replaced them are in their 20s and 30s and never had seen 'Touched By An Angel,'" notes Williamson. She recalls one such executive. "Someone clearly had told him, 'You need to meet with Martha Williamson,' but hadn't told him why, and he sat down and said, 'So, how long have you been writing?' It was so funny, and then in another meeting a young woman looked at me and said, 'Well, let's just get the elephant off the table.' And I said, 'Great. What elephant is that?' And she said, 'Well, the religion thing.'
"At this point I was walking around Hollywood old and religious, apparently." She laughs. "But the truth in Hollywood is that nobody cares where a good script comes from if it's a good script. You could put a chimpanzee behind a computer and if it comes up with a good script, someone wants it."
Still, the experience "really did make me realize that it's so easy to stop your works and, if you're not careful, lose your identity. I was truly blessed because I have a wonderful husband and two kids who totally knew who I was — I was mom. And they had no interest whatsoever in what I had been before they were born. People get so frenzied, they think if they step away from show business for any amount of time, they're afraid they'll lose it. And what is 'it'? The affirmation? Their identity? Their power?
"I am a much better writer than I was 10 years ago. I write more deeply, I have a number of other shows moving to the front burner right now — it's amazing," she goes on. And, she says, "I also think I'm a better producer after 10 years of producing children. I'm much more patient. I remember people would call me up and say something like, 'Listen, I'm going to be late coming into the office because my kid needs a costume for a Halloween parade.' And I would say, 'Are you in the right business? We're trying to make a network television show here.' Then I found myself being the person who had to put a Halloween costume together for my own children — rummaging through my costume jewelry, hats and belts. And I came to realize, those were the people who had their priorities straight, not I."
Williamson and her husband walked their daughters to school every day — up till this year. This past summer, their lives were turned upside-down when he suffered a stroke.
"There is an incredibly miraculous story," she says. "I was shooting this show in Vancouver. The children were in camp in Texas, and John had gone to our family cabin in Colorado for some R&R and spiritual meditation. He just wanted to be alone with his Bible. And he was very much alone — on 280 acres on the Colorado hills. I happened to be on the phone with him when he said to me, 'I think I'm having one of those things. ' I said, 'What?' and he couldn't think of the word for stroke. I said, 'Can you go to the bathroom and get a couple of aspirin really fast?' and he said, 'Where is the bathroom?' That's when I knew we had a real problem. He was losing consciousness, I knew I could not hang up the phone."
She thought of a e-newsletter that had gone out to owners of local cabins in the same vicinity and pulled it up on her computer as she continued talking on the phone, pasted all the email addresses into a letter and "in the subject line, I wrote 'Emergency! John is having a stroke.' In five minutes, six people were there." She has no doubt that God was there in their time of crisis. She says with a laugh, "You can cancel a show about God, but you can't cancel God. He hasn't gone anywhere."
Her husband, she says, is "improving a great deal. I think all the time and effort we put into being a very close-knit family is being revealed to us now as our girls and I come together to help him. He has some issues, he's lost some of his sight. He is having trouble reading. I found my daughter sitting there reading aloud to her dad at the breakfast table yesterday morning. And he is modeling for them the family motto, which is never give up. He is not giving up."
It is clear once again that Martha Williamson is a great natural font of good stories and good humor — and it's good to have her back. "We're going to do whatever we can to sort of put a little light back into the world," she says. "We do it with television and that's what we're going to try to do again."