Grey's Anatomy: Dark secrets the cast tried to hide

Longtime fans of Grey's Anatomy will tell you: Watching ShondaLand's long-running series can lead to anxiety, palpitations, mild to severe depression, and heartbreak. Very few characters escape the show without meeting some sort of grisly death, but what goes on behind the scenes certainly gives the doctors of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital a run for their money. More than once, off-screen shenanigans have led to the demise of some of our favorite characters — and plenty of pink slips for the actors who portrayed them.

In an unusually candid 2018 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, longtime star Ellen Pompeo opened up about the ongoing backstage melodrama. "On the outside, we were a massive success," she says of the show's early days, "but there was all of this tumult on the inside." She paints a highly melodramatic picture that includes rivalries among castmates and unhealthy amounts of competitiveness. "It starts with actors behaving badly, and then producers enabling them to behave badly." 

Pompeo doesn't let herself off the hook, either. (No one gets a free pass in ShondaLand.) "I saw squeaky wheels getting all the f*****g grease, so I was like, 'Okay, that's how you do it,' and I behaved badly as well. I mimicked what I saw."

Well, she certainly had her fair share of actors to mimic. On Grey's Anatomy, it sounds like basically everybody is behaving "badly" behind the scenes. Let's check up on some of the show's most severe cases.

Isaiah Washington's backstage belligerence

Isaiah Washington (Dr. Preston Burke) landed in some hot water in 2007 when, according to Entertainment Weekly, he called his co-star T.R. Knight (Dr. George O'Malley) a "fa**ot" in a heated argument with another co-star, Patrick Dempsey (Dr. Derek Shepherd).

"I sincerely regret my actions and the unfortunate use of words during the recent incident on-set," read his official statement to People. But then he shot himself in the foot at the Golden Globes, telling presenters, "I love gay. I wanted to be gay. Please let me be gay … No, I did not call T.R. a fa**ot." On June 7, 2007, Washington received the call: he was "not invited back to the show."

Knight has since come out as a gay man, but he was still very much in the closet at the time of the incident. The skirmish proved so off-putting to Grey's fans, audiences were livid when Washington made a return to the show in Season 10. However, series creator Shonda Rhimes insisted in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that Washington had learned from his mistakes and changed his ways. Nevertheless, the cameo did little to revive Washington's career. In a beguiling 2014 interview with I Am Entertainment, he dramatically states: "I don't worry about whether or not the stories I tell will destroy my acting career because you can't take away something that doesn't exist. They killed the actor (in me) on June 7, 2007." 

He really is entertainment, isn't he? 

Katherine Heigl's 'nasty' reputation

After surviving an on-screen battle with skin cancer that spread to her brain, you'd assume Dr. Izzie Stevens was invincible, and perhaps she is, but the actress who portrayed her is all-too human. According to Us Weekly, Katherine Heigl kicked up some major drama around the set by withdrawing her name for Emmy consideration because she didn't think the writers had given her Emmy-worthy material. (Which… what?) After that stultifying display of entitlement, Heigl lasted two more years before her character was written-off — which is actually quite an accomplishment when you consider how bizarre her actions were.

At the time of her exit, Heigl told Entertainment Weekly she wanted to spend more time with her family, but that's the ultimate party line. There was reportedly a lot of bad blood between the actress and Shonda Rhimes when she left the show. While discussing the relatively drama-free Scandal set in 2014, Rhimes used Heigl's name as a dirty catch-all to describe "difficult talent." The exec told The Hollywood Reporter, "There are no Heigls in the situation." She added, I don't put up with bulls**t or nasty people. I don't have time for it."

The moral of the story: Never burn a bridge in ShondaLand.

T.R. Knight will show himself out, thanks

In the wake of "IsaiahGate,"  T.R. Knight came out to People in 2007, telling the magazine he prefers keeping his private life private and hopes "the fact that I'm gay isn't the most interesting part of me." At the time, Shonda Rhimes praised the decision: "I said, 'If you want to come out, that's awesome. We'll totally support that.'" 

But behind the scenes, relationships were strained, with Knight alleging there was "a breakdown in communication." His character Dr. George O' Malley was one of the most beloved series regulars for the first few seasons of Grey's Anatomy, so it came as a terrible shock to viewers when "007" was unceremoniously hit by a bus and rendered unrecognizable to all his closest companions. O'Malley, who had fewer and fewer scenes as the series rolled on, died on the Season 6 premiere.

Audiences were heartbroken, but Knight's real-life plot-line sounds pretty damn dramatic in its own right. According to Entertainment Weekly, he wanted to leave the show because he wasn't getting enough screen time, even after complaining to the writers. (Which… maybe don't do that in ShondaLand.)

"My five-year experience proved to me that I could not trust any answer that was given [about O'Malley]," he said. "And with respect, I'm going to leave it at that."

Patrick Dempsey was allegedly a McDiva

One of Grey's Anatomy's most shocking and gut-wrenching moments was Dr. Derek Shepherd's passing after receiving incompetent medical care at another hospital following a very out-there car collision. Actor Patrick Dempsey was one of the show's original members of the cast, so it was with great sorrow and a heavy heart that viewers bid adieu to McDreamy (after eleven operatic seasons!) Shonda Rhimes evidently had a far easier time saying buh-bye to the character, and the actor who played him. 

According to Page Six, Dempsey was summarily ousted from the show back in 2015 because of his "diva" temperament. An insider alleged Rhimes "suspended him for a while, and the word on set is that he isn't coming back full time." 

Well, now he isn't coming back at all — and it sounds like Dempsey had no say in the matter. According to Radar Online, much of the drama was caused by Dempsey allegedly having an affair with a member of the Grey's staff, which seriously rankled Rhimes. That rumor sounds a little outlandish to us, but if true, it's a heavy dose of drama. (And really, it's no less outlandish than anything else going on with this show.) 

The takeaway is clear: Don't cross Rhimes, or your doctor card will be promptly revoked and your character will die a fiery death after a terrorizing three-car pile up, because that's life (and death) in ShondaLand.

Ellen Pompeo: The backstage buffoonery is "f***ing nuts"

With that dashing "diva" Dempsey-McDreamy out of the picture, you'd think the backstage drama would disappear, but that's not the story Ellen Pompeo is telling. The actress, who plays Dr. Meredith Grey, dealt with the traumatic demise of her on-screen love the way any of us would: by flying off to Sicily to clear her head. "It was a long working relationship," she explained to The Hollywood Reporter. "I needed a moment to just chill with some rosé."

But "They" wouldn't let her relax with a glass of wine. What was supposed to be your standard Sicily stop-in allegedly became an unending nightmare of frantic phone calls from bumbling ABC execs. Pompeo was trying to enjoy her "decompressing," but execs insisted she put the rosé down and weigh in on actors who might be able to fill Dempsey's classic black lace-up shoes. "They're calling me, going, 'What do you think of this guy?' 'What do you think of this guy?'" And they sent headshots, too — a surefire way to upend anyone's relaxing Italian vacay. "I was like, 'Are you people f**king nuts?"

She was shocked at "how fast the studio and the network felt like they had to get a penis in there." In the end, execs panicked and found a replacement as quickly as they could: "The ink wasn't even dry on [Dempsey's] exit papers before they rushed in a new guy," said Pompeo.

 And that "new guy" didn't fare particularly well, either…

Martin Henderson: We barely knew thee

Hey, that "new guy" had a name, Pompeo: It was actor Martin Henderson. After a comparatively short tenure with the show, Henderson's character, Dr. Nathan Riggs, was abruptly written off Grey's Anatomy. The handsome cardiothoracic surgeon only got to furrow his brow and scamper down the Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital corridors for a little more than two seasons. Bizarrely enough, he was blessed with a seemingly unheard of happy ending. The last time we see Dr. Riggs, he's contentedly hanging out on on a beach and starting a new life in California. 

"I loved that we were able to give Riggs a happy ending worthy of his character and talent," Rhimes told Deadline in a prepared statement. (Does that sound dismissive to you?) 

"It was always a short-term thing and I was happy to spend a few years doing the show," Henderson added. Although we imagine the role could've become a "temp-to-perm" gig had audiences warmed to his performance. 

"We brought in Martin Henderson," Pompeo told The Hollywood Reporter, in the soundbite equivalent of a shrug, "but they didn't love the storyline, so that ended."

Hey, we can't all be Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital material.

Jesse Williams' love life is juicier than Season 14

In 2017, Grey's Anatomy fans were shocked to learn that actor Jesse Williams was divorcing real estate broker Aryn Drake-Lee. The handsome star, who portrays Jackson Avery, M.D., had been married to Drake-Lee for more than a decade, and they have two children together. (They were soon enough embroiled in an ugly custody battle). A source told People: "None of us saw this coming. Jesse lived for her." Apparently, if we'd known Williams back when he had "dreads and a backpack" and Drake-Lee was "grinding doing real estate," we'd be equally gutted by the news.

Rumors swirled that Williams had cheated on his wife with actress Minka Kelly — rumors he attempted to dispel by acting especially miffed by all the scrutiny: "I was in a relationship 13 years … and all of a sudden mother f***ers are writing think-pieces that I somehow threw a 13-year relationship … because a girl I work with is cute." 

But the relationship with Kelly was very real: TMZ captured them wandering through Paris holding hands. However, whatever relationship they had was very short-lived, with omniscient sources telling Page Six the coupledom was doomed. And they were right: Kelly and Williams split, with Kelly spotted making out with another man shortly thereafter, to the palpable delight of the tabloids

This is altogether juicier than whatever's going on with Dr. Avery and Dr. Maggie Pierce, isn't it?

The cast allegedly resented Kate Walsh's success

Do you have friends who unequivocally support you no matter what — even when things in your life are going fantastically? If so, you might want to tell actress Kate Walsh where you found them. 

In 2007, it was that announced that Walsh's character, Dr. Addison Montgomery, would be leaving Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital for greener pastures: the relatively short-lived spin-off Private Practice. This move reportedly upset the whole cast and created a bottomless pit of backstage drama, leaving everybody "blindsided."

"The rest of the cast seemed instantly resentful," a source told Star (via Today). "They each thought they'd be the one chosen to get their own show, and now they're giving Kate the cold shoulder." According to that same source, Pompeo allegedly took the news especially hard: She was "peeved because she felt that, as the star, she should have been consulted." 

This may explain why Walsh doesn't sound altogether eager to don her doctor's coat again anytime soon. "We explored Addison pretty thoroughly," she said in a 2017 interview, nodding emphatically. "I think we felt we … put it to rest." 

Why was Brooke Smith given the boot?

If you're anything like us, you occasionally catch yourself wondering why Brooke Smith was really written out of Grey's Anatomy in 2008. According to Entertainment Weekly, the decision to swing the axe at Dr. Erica Hahn didn't come from showrunner Shonda Rhimes. It came from concerned network execs, who reportedly "had issues" with the explicit nature of her lesbian relationship with Dr. Callie Torres. (They were the show's first-ever ongoing gay couple.)  

"I was surprised and disappointed when they just suddenly told me that they couldn't write for my character anymore," Smith lamented. The decision mystified her, too: "I don't think I'm ever going to know [why this happened]." The character wasn't eviscerated, either. The last we see her, Dr. Hahn is just walking to her car. That makes it so much worse. If she'd just been brutally killed like all our other favorite characters, we'd at least have a sense of closure.

Rhimes played down all the claims that ABC execs simply weren't down with the sapphic storyline: "Brooke Smith was obviously not fired for playing a lesbian. Clearly it's not an issue as we have a lesbian character on the show." Rhimes claimed producers simply couldn't find "the magic and chemistry" with Dr. Hahn. 

Eric Dane felt like 'just a piece of meat'

In 2012, viewers watched helplessly as handsome physician Dr. Mark Sloan went splat in what was otherwise a garden-variety jet explosion. The beat on the street, according to E! News: Network execs requested "budget tightening," which translated to Shonda Rhimes tightening the noose around actor Eric Dane's neck (metaphorically). He allegedly "did not ask to leave the show," but there were "'very legitimate reasons for Shonda's decision to let him go."  

If Dane's pernicious addiction to painkillers or the bizarre "Celebrity Nude Threesome" brouhaha informed the choice, you wouldn't know it from Rhimes' even-keeled statement to Entertainment Weekly: "It was a thing that Eric had been thinking about for awhile … I'm happy he's going to go on and do other things."

But "happy" wasn't exactly the mood of a Twitter tussle between Rhimes and Dane in 2016. The Grey's Anatomy showrunner had tweeted her distaste at some of Trump's comments about women, to which Dane replied: "… I could give no [f**ks] about @shondarhimes opinion…" Rhimes decided the comment only warranted a shady two-letter response: "Um?"

Perhaps it's best that Dane moved on. After all, he told the French site Program (via Wet Paint): "In Grey's Anatomy, I was just a piece of meat." 

That's not strictly true — he also had great hair.

Shonda Rhimes vs. ABC brass

Before Grey's Anatomy became a hit — in fact, shortly after the first season wrapped filming — clammy-palmed ABC execs decided to meddle with a controversial scene that ultimately wound up on the editing room floor. The scene depicted characters Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) and Dr. Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) placing a bet to see who could deliver the most tragic news to patients in the shortest amount of time. 

"I think the term that was used to describe me to my face was, 'If you think you're funny, you're sick," Rhimes revealed to The Hollywood Reporter. "I was stunned."

Reportedly, a horde of furious and fidgety execs stampeded the editing room with voluminous notes about everything that needed to be cut, switched around, and otherwise adjusted. "I remember sitting there thinking to myself, 'How much change can I make so that I still feel like I'm doing my show but also gets them the hell out of my editing room?" recalled Rhimes.

Tensions reportedly mounted between Rhimes and Steve McPherson, who was President of ABC at the time. "He said really horrible things to me … I literally started keeping a list of how many times he said a certain swear word to me." 

But after 16 million viewers tuned in for the series premiere, it was Rhimes who likely earned the right to use colorful language — when telling execs exactly where they could stick it.

Pompeo insists she has nothing to do with cast departures

When Deadline intimated (in a since updated story) that Ellen Pompeo was the ringmaster behind the departure of two popular characters, the Grey's Anatomy veteran was furious. Breaking the news that pediatric surgeon Dr. Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) and trauma surgeon Dr. April Kepner (Sarah Drew) wouldn't be returning to Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, the article noted the decision came "on the heels" of Pompeo's new negotiations. The suggestion was clear.

"It's unfortunate that @DEADLINE chooses to try to pit women against each other on #InternationalWomensDay," Pompeo tweeted in response. "I'm a big girl … Deadline can take shots at me if they want but to the fans please don't fall into that trap. This is above my pay grade."

Grey's Anatomy co-showrunner Krista Vernoff had plenty to say about the skirmish: "It smacks of an old, broken, patriarchal notion that women must be pitted against each other and that one woman's success will be costly to others."

In response to the fracas, Deadline updated the story, claiming Pompeo's raise "led to online speculation about a possible connection between the two" but that there "is no such connection that we are aware of." 

That addendum came on the heels of Pompeo publicly dissing Deadline, claiming its reporting was sexist and presumptuous.