After more than 16 years dominating primetime television, there hasn’t been a network show that has measured up to the long-running success of Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy.
Not only did it help turn Rhimes into a bona fide force in Hollywood, it also created stars out of Sandra Oh and Katherine Heigl and led to Ellen Pompeo being named the highest-paid actress in a drama series in 2018, raking in $575,000 per episode as titular character Meredith Grey, as well as introducing the term “vajayjay” and phrase “you’re my person” to the cultural lexicon.
But despite the cutting of LVAD wires, numerous shock deaths, a steady stream of fascinating medical anomalies, and even a musical episode, much of the real drama of Seattle Grace Hospital took place behind the scenes.
Lynette Rice, an editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly who covered the show during the height of its frenzy, spoke with more than 80 cast and crew members, writers, producers, ABC executives, and inside sources about exactly what went down on TV’s hottest medical drama for her new book How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy, out Sept. 21 from St. Martin’s Press.
While the book touches on episode plot points, revisits fan-favorite characters, including Denny Duquette (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and features interviews with bands that created songs synonymous with the show, Rice tells The Daily Beast that she was most interested in diving into “what the show was like to make and how hard it was to make and why it kind of went off the rails relatively quickly.”
The first inkling of inner turmoil came when news leaked that a physical altercation broke out between Isaiah Washington, who played the stoic Dr. Preston Burke, and Patrick Dempsey’s Dr. Derek Shepherd, aka “McDreamy,” in October 2006.
Those on set that day recalled to Rice that Washington not only pinned Dempsey up against a wall and lashed out at him for showing up late to set, but also referred to his co-star T.R. Knight (who played intern George O’Malley) with a homophobic slur. (Knight had not publicly come out yet.) Things allegedly got so heated that Heigl was one of the few people who jumped up to help break up the scuffle.
Everyone tried to play down the altercation at first, but when Washington used the slur again when trying to defend himself at the Golden Globes just a few months later, tensions allegedly boiled over with a pissed-off Heigl telling Access Hollywood at an after-party, “I’m going to be really honest right now, he needs to just not speak in public, period. I’m not OK with it.”
Speaking with Rice, Heigl says her remarks came after “a couple glasses of champagne” and out of wanting to stick up for Knight. “I was furious and frustrated for my friend and sick of the whole mess of it,” she says. “I was recently talking to T.R. about this and I said, ‘I hope I didn’t embarrass you and draw more attention to something that you just wanted to go away.’ And he said I could never have embarrassed him and that he was so grateful because no one had ever stood up for him that way before. So that was a proud moment for me. I don’t regret it. And I’m just grateful my friend doesn’t regret it.”
Eventually a decision was reached between the network, studio and Rhimes, who gave Washington’s character by all accounts a graceful exit, having him leave Oh’s character Cristina Yang at the altar in the May 2007 episode, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?”
Reflecting on the events with Rice, Washington was deeply remorseful but still didn’t seem to grasp the severity of what he had done. “I can only apologize so many times,” he is quoted in the book. “I can accept only so much responsibility. I just hope people in the industry can understand that it’s a horrible misunderstanding what transpired with our show, and it was blown out of proportion.”
But an unexpected victim from Washington’s self-implosion was Knight, who was essentially outed via the leaked news of the fight. Deciding to address the situation head-on a few days after the scuffle, Knight made a statement to People: “I’d like to quiet any unnecessary rumors that may be out there. While I prefer to keep my personal life private, I hope the fact that I’m gay isn’t the most interesting part of me.”
Rhimes claimed that Knight coming out wouldn’t affect his character, but his screen time gradually shrunk—prompting Knight to request to leave the show in Season 5. “There just comes a time when it’s so clear that moving on is the best decision,” Knight tells Rice. “My five-year experience proved to me that I could not trust any answer that was given [about George]... I never made any demands, like, ‘You do this, or else.’ I was always very respectful. In any sort of creative process, there are going to be disagreements.”
It didn’t help that Knight’s beloved character of George O’Malley was killed off by literally being thrown under a bus, left horribly disfigured and unable to speak.
“It was just weird, the whole thing,” makeup director Norman Leavitt told Rice. “It was really uncomfortable and T.R. didn’t need to be there.”
“He wanted off the show, so they literally threw him under the bus,” Tom Burman, who worked on the special effects makeup team, added. “He never complained once, and when we had his whole head covered, he never complained once. They punished him for wanting to get off the show. Petty, huh?”
And while Rhimes offered to have Knight reprise his character in flashback episodes, he never accepted the invitation—at least until late 2020, when he appeared in Meredith’s dream.
Heigl had her own acrimonious exit in 2010. The rising star, who was rumored to want off the show so she could pursue more film roles, was branded a diva and ungrateful after she took a swipe at Rhimes and the show’s writers when she huffed that she hadn’t submitted her name to be considered for an Emmy because she felt the material that she was given in Season 4 was subpar.
Years later, Heigl is willing to admit that she was wrong. “I thought I was doing the right thing," she tells Rice in the book. “And I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t snubbing the Emmys. The night I won was the highlight of my career. I just was afraid that if I said, ‘No comment,’ it was going to come off like I couldn’t be bothered [to enter the race]. I could have more gracefully said that without going into a private work matter. It was between me and the writers. I ambushed them, and it wasn’t very nice or fair.”
But for all the drama packed into the book’s 281 pages, Rice ends with perhaps the most revealing tidbit of all. “[Grey’s Anatomy] is the story of one of the greatest successes in television history,” an unnamed source tells Rice. “But to me, the real story is never going to be fully told, because people won’t talk—at least on the record, like me.”
As another insider puts it, “No one wants to piss [Rhimes] off.”
Rice says that over the course of her reporting, she heard from at least two lawyers who warned her away from certain topics. While she didn’t get into detail on what rumors she was cautioned against pursuing, noticeably absent from the book is perhaps one of the juiciest alleged scandals of all, which reportedly helped fast-track golden boy Dempsey’s exit.
It was no secret that Dempsey had grown tired of playing McDreamy for 11 seasons, becoming a hassle to work with. His behavior was exacerbated by the often 15-hour-long workdays, shooting 10 months out of the year, coupled with him wanting to pursue other opportunities and to focus on his racing career.
“There were HR issues,” producer James D. Parriott tells Rice. “It wasn’t sexual in any way. He sort of was terrorizing the set. Some cast members had all sorts of PTSD with him. He had this hold on the set where he knew he could stop production and scare people.”
With the cast and crew reportedly tired of his antics, Rhimes gave Dempsey his wish and killed off his character following a car accident in “How to Save a Life,” which aired in April 2015.
But InTouch published a story a month after Dempsey’s shock departure, which was kept a secret right up until the episode aired, claiming to have the real scoop on why he was given the boot: Dempsey was allegedly having a secret affair with someone on the show. (Dempsey’s hair stylist-wife Jillian Fink, whom he married in 1999, had filed for divorce in Jan. 2015, although the two reconciled later that year.)
At the time, Rice secured the only interview with Dempsey about his departure from Grey’s. Although she brought up that he had previously signed a deal that would keep him on the drama through Season 12, Dempsey was vague about the sudden change of plans. “It just kind of happened,” he offered. “[Being written off] was something that was kind of surprising and uh, just naturally came to be. I like the way it has all played out.”
Rice hints that she did try to chase down the affair rumor, but she wasn’t able to quite nail it down. “If I didn’t have enough, I didn’t go with it,” she explains. “You hear a lot of stories about what’s happened on that show. The one point that I do try to make too, is quoting somebody, they didn’t want to be named but they say, ‘The true Grey's Anatomy story will never probably be told because nobody wants to go on the record.’ Ultimately, you’re dealing with personal lives here. You want to be damn sure that you have the confirmation before you move on something.”
While rumors about the nature of Dempsey’s exit, as well as Justin Chambers’ (who played Dr. Alex Karev) departure in 2020 were interesting to Rice, she says she was most curious about Rhimes’ departure from ABC, lured away by streaming giant Netflix with a multi-year deal in 2017.
It was surprising because ABC helped launch Rhimes’ career with the success of Grey’s Anatomy, its spinoffs Private Practice and Station 19, as well as championing her other hit shows Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, all of which played back-to-back-to-back under the lineup “Thank God It’s Thursday (TGIT).”
While the estimated $100-$150 million payday Netflix shelled out to Rhimes would be a hard offer to refuse, it seems that as with most of Rhimes’ exits, there was some behind-the-scenes tension—only this time she was the one hinting at her grievances.
“I felt like I was dying,” Rhimes told The Hollywood Reporter last year of keeping up with the demands of producing multiple shows for ABC. “Like I’d been pushing the same ball up the same hill in the exact same way for a really long time.”
But it seems the tipping point came when Rhimes made a relatively innocuous request of ABC over her all-inclusive passes to Disneyland. There was a hiccup while her sister and nanny were visiting the theme park, so Rhimes called an ABC executive to help straighten things out. Instead, she was allegedly told, “Don’t you have enough?” A few months later, Rhimes was off to Netflix.
Sources familiar with the negotiation seemed slightly bitter about Rhimes when they talked to Rice, with some going out of their way to highlight how her short-lived shows Catch and Still Star-Crossed didn’t fare as well as her other series. “She did a lot of shows for us that didn’t work, which people don’t really write about,” a former ABC insider is quoted as saying.
Former ABC Entertainment Group President Channing Dungey mentioned that people often question how a company would survive without its star talent, saying that with Rhimes gone, ABC had the chance to give new talent an opportunity to succeed.
Another ABC executive who knew of the talks quipped that “history has shown it was the right decision [to let Rhimes go],” because it apparently had freed up ABC’s money to put into other developments, as the exec claimed there are no recent broadcast dramas that are culturally relevant. Rice points out that Rhimes’ Bridgerton would go on to become the biggest Netflix series ever with 82 million watchers in the first month of its release.
“It’ll be interesting when this show finally ends if that true-ass tell-all will ever be told,” Rice adds. “I have my doubts, because at the end of day, Shonda Rhimes is a very powerful woman.”
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