Here's Why These Stars Quit Grey's Anatomy

In 2019, ABC's Grey's Anatomy made history as the longest-running medical drama in TV history, surpassing ER. As of this writing, it's still going strong, having aired 17 seasons since its  2005 premiere. But no TV show that has been running as long as Grey's Anatomy can go that many years without the on-screen drama seeping into real life behind the scenes.

In fact, Grey's Anatomy has had a reputation for drama between cast members since its early days. This enduring conflict has led to some of the most talked-about departures in TV history, too. Every rose has its thorn, right? While NDAs probably prevent many former Grey's Anatomy stars from telling us what (or who) caused them to hang up their lab coats for good, nothing prevents us from looking at the facts and taking our best guess as to why so many cast members quit Grey's Anatomy. Grab a snack. We could only fit some of Grey-Sloan Memorial's former doctors on this list, but it's a long one.

McDreamy is McDead

When Patrick Dempsey's character, Dr. Derek Shepherd, died a hero's death on Grey's Anatomy Season 11 Episode 21, "How To Save A Life," it inspired many articles about the future of the show, not to mention a Time article about grieving fictional characters. Fans who follow the show closely probably saw it coming. Dempsey told Portland Press Herald in November 2014 that he would leave the show "very soon." Meanwhile, Page Six concurrently claimed that Dempsey was suspended from the show at the time, because he had "been acting like a diva and has clashed with [showrunner] Shonda [Rhimes]." Thereafter, he made occasional appearances in Seasons 10 and 11, with his overall absence explained by the character's job with the president in Washington, D.C. 

In his exit interview with Entertainment Weekly Dempsey said of his departure, "It just sort of unfolded in a very organic way." He evaded questions about conflict on set. He was going through a divorce at the time (he has since reconciled with wife Jillian Fink) and did mention the toll his role took on his family. "Your kid asks you, 'What are you doing
 on Monday?' and you go, 'I don't know,' because I don't know my schedule. Doing that for 11 years is challenging." ABC's statement read, "Patrick Dempsey is moving on to pursue other interests." Rhimes mostly focused on the character of Dr. Shepherd, but she did praise "Dempsey's performance." Dempsey has since returned to the show in Meredith's COVID-induced dreams.

Meredith needs a new 'person'

Equally beloved among Grey's Anatomy fans as Dr. Shepherd is Dr. Cristina Yang, portrayed by Sandra Oh. She left the series on the Season 10 finale when Cristina moved to Switzerland for a new job. Unlike many of her castmates' exits, Oh's was drama-free. She simply wanted to move on to other projects, and she was kind enough to give fans the head's up prior to the start of her final season. 

"Creatively, I really feel like I gave it my all, and I feel ready to let her go," Oh told The Hollywood Reporter in August 2013, adding, "It's such an interesting thing to play a character for so long and to actually get the sense that she wants to be let go as well. [Cristina] wants to be let go, and I am ready to let her go." She said she began thinking about leaving the show upon signing what would be her last two-year contract, and she was glad to have such a long runway for her exit, since she also said she needed an entire season of filming to grieve the character's end and say goodbye to the cast and crew.

Of her star's exit, Shonda Rhimes told THR, "Over the past 10 seasons, I have been made better by Sandra's trust, faith and friendship, and I can't quantify how grateful I am for her collaboration on a character we both love so deeply."

Hate speech got this Grey's Anatomy star booted

Isiah Washington portrayed Dr. Preston Burke on Grey's Anatomy until 2007. One of his character's most notable moments was when he left Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) at the altar on the Season 3 finale. Washington's real-life departure from the show was even more dramatic. He was dismissed after using a homophobic slur twice in the span of three months. According to The New York Times, Washington reportedly first used the slur in reference to co-star T.R. Knight, during a spat with Patrick Dempsey. Knight then came out as gay as a result of the incident. Then, Washington bizarrely repeated the word was at a press conference after the Golden Globes, while denying he called Knight the slur.

"We have a longstanding policy to create and maintain respectful workplaces for all our employees," ABC said in a statement, adding, "We dealt with the original situation in October, and thought the issue resolved. Therefore, we are greatly dismayed that Mr. Washington chose to use such inappropriate language at the Golden Globes, language that he himself deemed 'unfortunate' in his previous public apology."

Washington issued many more public apologies, but it wasn't enough. He later told Entertainment Weekly"I'm saddened by the outcome. I did everything that the producers and the network asked me to do. I came back under great duress and stress, and thought I was doing the job I was hired to do." He returned to the show seven years later so his character could facilitate Cristina's exit.

The longest fight in Grey's Anatomy history

Katherine Heigl took a swing at Shonda Rhimes when she withdrew her name from Emmy consideration in 2008. "I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I withdrew my name from contention," she told the Los Angeles Times (via Today).

At a TV critics' press tour a month later Rhimes said (via Entertainment Weekly) that she and Heigl had a "really wonderful working relationship." She said she was "surprised" but not angered by Heigl's choice. "I wrote the back half light for Katherine so she could do her movie." So, she wasn't above getting a jab in. 

Heigl went on to call her work conditions on Grey's Anatomy "cruel and mean" on Letterman (via Vulture) in 2009 before she left for good in the middle of the show's sixth season."I am done," Heigl told Entertainment Weekly (via Huffpost). "We just finalized our agreement. Everyone had been working really hard to find an amicable and gracious way of letting go and moving on. It's sad but it's what I wanted." She also said that starting a family changed her career goals.

Rhimes does hold a grudge. In 2014 she told The Hollywood Reporter that on the set of Scandal, "There are no Heigls." Later she said she had a "no a**holes policy" and that she doesn't "put up with b*llsh*t or nasty people."

An abrupt goodbye for Dr. Alex Karev

One of the most surprising exits in Grey's Anatomy history is that of Justin Chambers, who played Dr. Alex Karev for 16 seasons (15 years) before announcing his exit in January 2020. "There's no good time to say goodbye to a show and character that's defined so much of my life for the past 15 years," his statement read (via Deadline). "For some time now, however, I have hoped to diversify my acting roles and career choices. And, as I turn 50 and am blessed with my remarkable, supportive wife and five wonderful children, now is that time."

It was in the middle of a season (so most likely the middle of a contract) when his character abruptly left his wife, Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington), so we suspect something more than a career change was afoot. Showrunner Krista Vernoff's statement on Twitter focused mostly on Chambers' character, however she did say she "loved watching" his "nuanced portrayal." Multiple sources told Page Six, however, that Chambers was seeking treatment for his mental health at the time, and that the show may have been a trigger. "Justin was at Privé-Swiss being treated for stress, depression and life-coaching. There is a lot going on with ['Grey's Anatomy"] behind-the-scenes right now," said one source. Neither Chambers nor that facility have commented on that speculation. We here at Nicki Swift just wish him well.

A shock on International Women's Day

On March 8, 2020 —  International Women's Day — Deadline reported that two popular female cast members, Sarah Drew and Jessica Capshaw (who played Dr. April Kepner and Dr. Arizona Robbins respectively) would exit the show after Season 14. It was a decision made by the show's producers, including showrunner Krista Vernoff, for "creative" reasons. But Deadline did note that it was the same year that star Ellen Pompeo signed a 2-year, $20 million deal.

In her statement on social media regarding her exit, Drew made it clear she did not choose to leave. "I have not really had time to process the information. I've been with it for less than 48 hours, so I'm not ready to say my thank yous and give an all encompassing statement about my 9 years here," it read, in-part. In Capshaw's farewell statement (per Deadline) she said, in-part, "For the past ten years I have had the rare privilege of not only playing Arizona Robbins, but also being madly in love with playing her."

Vernoff and Pompeo, meanwhile, fiercely denied that Pompeo's salary influenced the choice. "The suggestion in the 'Deadline' article that our cast changes are in any way related to Ellen Pompeo's salary renegotiation is wrong and hurtful and misguided," Vernoff tweeted. "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," Pompeo tweeted. Hmm doth thou protest too much?

T.R. Knight thought George O'Malley deserved better

T.R. Knight was unfortunately placed in the middle of Grey's Anatomy behind-the-scenes drama when he was the alleged victim of hate speech by cast member Isiah Washington. But he told Entertainment Weekly that he left the show about two years later because he thought his character George O'Malley deserved a better story. "My five-year experience proved to me that I could not trust any answer that was given [about George]," he explained, adding, "And with respect, I'm going to leave it at that." Per EW, the actor only appeared in 48 minutes of "the first nine episodes of season 5." That's drastically less screen-time than his co-stars got the same season.

He also expressed to EW that Shonda Rhimes seemed weary about his choice to come out, which may have strained their working relationship. "I think she was concerned about having my statement come out so close to the [initial] event." Rhimes denied this, saying, "I remember saying to [executive producer] Betsy Beers, 'This is our proudest day here. T.R. got to come out, and I got to say to him that it wouldn't affect his character' — because he was concerned that he was going to come out and George would suddenly be gay."

George's death was sad, but Knight did return to the show in 2020 to appear in Meredith's dreams. "George O'Malley will always claim my heart," he said in a statement on Instagram about his return.

An icon exits Grey's

Sara Ramírez saddened Grey's Anatomy fans when she announced that her character's move to New York in Season 12 was a final goodbye. "I'm deeply grateful to have spent the last 10 years with my family at Grey's Anatomy and ABC but for now I'm taking some welcome time off," she said in a statement, per The Hollywood Reporter. "Shonda's been so incredible to work for and we will definitely continue our conversations! I send my love to Ellen [Pompeo], the rest of the cast and crew, and I look forward to always being a part of the Shondaland family!"

Shonda Rhimes said in a statement per The Hollywood Reporter "Dr. Callie Torres came into our lives dancing it out in her underwear almost a decade ago and I could not be happier or more proud of her journey. Sara Ramírez's performance inspired me as well as millions of fans each week." Dr. Torres broke ground for the LBGTQIA community as one of the first series regular bisexual characters on TV.

Rhimes later said at Vulture Festival (via Entertainment Weekly), "This one was different because it wasn't a big, planned thing." Ramírez likely did want a break or couldn't agree on renegotiations. She hasn't returned to the show. Per TV Guide, Rhimes said she tried to get Ramírez back, but because she was on Madam Secretary by then, CBS wouldn't allow it. In a now-deleted tweet (via TV Guide) Ramírez denied that claim.

A lack of 'magic and chemistry' sent Dr. Erica Hahn packing

Brooke Smith played Dr. Erica Hahn on Grey's Anatomy from Season 2 until she made an abrupt exit in Season 5. She played Dr. Callie Torres' (Sara Ramirez) first female love interest,  and ABC reportedly had issues with the direction of their storyline. "I really hoped we were going to show what happens when two women fall in love and that they were going to treat it like any heterosexual couple on TV," said Smith in an exit interview with Entertainment Weekly. "And so I was surprised and disappointed when they just suddenly told me that they couldn't write for my character anymore." Smith said that reporter Michael Ausiello warned her that the network might "get cold feet” with an LBGTQIA relationship, even in 2008. She said she thinks that's exactly what happened, and that she was "shocked" to be let go as executives had told her she was doing great work.

Shonda Rhimes later confirmed the reason Smith was let go. "Brooke Smith was obviously not fired for playing a lesbian," she told EW, adding, "Unfortunately, we did not find that the magic and chemistry with Brooke's character would sustain in the long run."

The plane crash that changed Grey's Anatomy forever

Story-wise there is one event that shook Grey's Anatomy to its core — the plane crash on the Season 8 finale. It caused the deaths of soulmates Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh) and Marc Sloan (Eric Dane), and eventually led the hospital to change its name to honor them. But the reasons behind these exits are surprisingly anticlimactic.

Leigh made the decision to leave on her own. "Earlier this year, I made the decision that Season 8 would be my last," Leigh told TVLine. "I met with Shonda [Rhimes] and we worked together to give Lexie's story appropriate closure." Rhimes echoed Leigh. "I love Chyler and I love the character of Lexie Grey. She was an important member of my Grey's family. This was not an easy decision. But it was a decision that Chyler and I came to together," she tweeted.  

Dane's statement about his exit early on Season 9 read: "I am extremely grateful to everyone at Grey's, ABC and Shondaland for the experience and memories I have had over the course of this run" (via TV Line). He later revealed that he left Grey's Anatomy for his role as Tom Chandler on TNT's The Last Ship. "[The Last Ship] was an opportunity for me to go and I was interested in something different," he said at an event per Entertainment Weekly, adding, "I loved doing Grey's Anatomy. I would have done it until the final episode, but this was something I couldn't pass up." 

Dr. Addison Montgomery spun off on her own

Kate Walsh left Seattle-Grace Hospital in 2007 so that her character, Dr. Addison Montgomery, could move to California — but she didn't leave the Grey's Anatomy universe. She simply got the spin-off, Private Practice. When she landed the show, there were reports of jealousy. "The rest of the cast seemed instantly resentful of (Walsh)," 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." Strangely, Ellen Pompeo was reportedly most upset. "[She] seemed particularly peeved because she felt that, as the star, she should have been consulted."

Dr. Montgomery would visit Seattle from time to time until Private Practice ended in 2013, but as recently as 2019, she hinted to she's open to returning to Grey's Anatomy. "If it's the right time and the right storyline, yes. I always considered Shondaland my home, and particularly Grey's. That's where it was just a big important piece of my life, and I love everyone involved on the show. So, absolutely I would go back if it made sense to everybody involved — yes." Season 17 seems to be the year fellow former casemates are returning, but Walsh isn't among them — yet.