The Most Dramatic Grey's Anatomy Exits

"Grey's Anatomy" is one of the longest-running scripted shows ever on American TV. Premiering on ABC in 2005, the medical drama revolving around surgical intern Meredith Grey and her cohorts at Seattle Grace Hospital quickly became a Thursday night obsession. "Grey's Anatomy" turned a not-so-famous movie actor named Ellen Pompeo into one of the highest-paid women on dramatic television. Naturally, the ratings juggernaut doesn't rely on the medicine to keep viewers coming back.

"Grey's" fans tune in to follow the personal lives of their favorite characters, and to see how each of those stories will play out. Like the time Meredith opened her heart to Derek, asking him to, "Pick me. Choose me. Love me," or when Christina first told Mer, ”You're my person." Through the joys, heartbreaks, and second chances, dyed-in-the-wool fans have been along for the ride for all of it.

Of course, with so many featured characters, there have been plenty of high-profile cast shake-ups over the years. As TV dramas often go, some fan faves went out with a bang, so to speak. We're here to break down what really happened with the most riveting "Grey's" departures ever. So, keep scrolling. Stat! These shocking exits are sure to get your blood pumping.

Isaiah Washington was fired for an anti-gay slur

In June 2007, ABC announced that Isaiah Washington wouldn't be returning to his role as Dr. Preston Burke (per Entertainment Weekly). The decision came following news of a heated behind-the-scenes argument between Washington and co-star Patrick Dempsey. In the scuffle, Washington reportedly referred to co-star T.R. Knight using a homophobic slur. Washington then stirred up the controversy all over again in the press room at the Golden Globes, when he repeated the word as he denied ever saying it.

Washington told Entertainment Weekly that he'd hoped things would have turned out differently. "I'm saddened by the outcome. I did everything that the producers and the network asked me to do," he said. "I came back under great duress and stress, and thought I was doing the job I was hired to do." Co-star Katherine Heigl, a close friend to Knight, blasted Washington for the epithet, telling Access Hollywood at the time, "I'm going to be really honest right now, he needs to just not speak in public. Period. I'm sorry, that did not need to be said, I'm not okay with it."

Washington apologized for the incident, dubbed "Isaiahgate," and he filmed a PSA for the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD. He asked twice if he could resign from "Grey's," and according to an insider, "He even volunteered to sit down with Diane Sawyer" (via Entertainment Weekly). 

T. R. Knight said his character deserved more

In a brave move to save a woman's life, George O'Malley was struck by a bus at the end of Season 5, and later died from his injuries. T. R. Knight, the actor who originated the role, was the first main cast member to leave the series. According to the "Flight Attendant" actor, he walked away for a very good reason. Disgruntled that his character's screen time was shrinking away, Knight told Entertainment Weekly that he experienced a gradual "breakdown of communication" with executive producer Shonda Rhimes, and he wanted out.

"My five-year experience proved to me that I could not trust any answer that was given [about George]," he explained. "And with respect, I'm going to leave it at that." Knight was a Hollywood newcomer before his breakout role in "Grey's," which earned him an Emmy nomination in 2007. After he became an alleged victim of hate speech by fellow cast member Isaiah Washington in an on-set argument with Patrick Dempsey, Knight claimed that Rhimes tried to keep him from coming out.

"I think she was concerned about having my statement come out so close to the [initial] event," he said. Rhimes had a different account. "I said, 'If you want to come out, that's awesome. We'll totally support that,'" she told Entertainment Weekly. In 2020, Knight returned to the series that launched his career. George appeared in a dream sequence on the beach with Meredith during her COVID-19 diagnosis. After the show aired, Knight posted on Instagram, "George O'Malley will always claim my heart."

Katherine Heigl was at odds with Grey's producers

In 2008, Katherine Heigl made a statement that may have ruffled some feathers on the "Grey's" creative team. "I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination," she said in a statement obtained by The New York Times. Shonda Rhimes, at a TV critics press tour, via Entertainment Weekly, said she was not "insulted" by the actor's comments, and she was fine with accommodating Heigl's scheduling conflicts. "I wrote the back half light for Katherine so she could do her movie."

The "27 Dresses" star then added fuel to the fire. In 2009, she complained about her first day back on set, telling David Letterman, "It was — I'm going to keep saying this because I hope it embarrasses them — a 17-hour day, which I think is cruel and mean." In March 2010, Heigl didn't show up for work, per Lynette Rice's "How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey's Anatomy" (via The Daily Telegraph).

The "Firefly Lane” star claimed she was on family leave, and that she had spoken to Rhimes about her departure. "Then I waited at home until I was given the formal okay that I was off the show. The rumors that I refused to return were totally untrue," she said in "How to Save a Life." In a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Rhimes possibly shaded Heigl while discussing her own "no a**holes" policy. She said, "I don't put up with bulls**t or nasty people. I don't have time for it."

McDreamy's life came to an end

The love story that captivated viewers for 11 seasons came to an end in 2015. Dr. Derek Shepherd, a.k.a. "McDreamy," met his fate in a deadly car crash. Per Entertainment Weekly, fans were concerned by Derek's absence in the first six episodes of the season. One viewer wrote on Dempsey's Facebook page, "I have never missed one episode but I swear if [Rhimes] kills you off I'm done." According to Page Six, Shonda Rhimes might have had a motivation to get rid of her high-maintenance star. McDreamy's on-set behavior was more like a nightmare.

An inside source told the outlet, "Patrick has been acting like a diva and has clashed with Shonda," and Rhimes allegedly suspended him. There were also reports of Dempsey bothering his co-stars. In an excerpt from "How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey's Anatomy" (via The Hollywood Reporter), executive producer James D. Parriott said, "He was sort of 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." 

The "Bridget Jones's Baby" actor spoke to EW about the toll his long hours took on his life. "You never know your schedule, so 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," he said. ABC officially said in a statement, "...Patrick Dempsey is moving on to pursue other interests" (via TVLine).

Sara Ramirez left the show with three days' notice

Sara Ramirez said goodbye to Dr. Callie Torres after 10 seasons in a (since-deleted) 2016 tweet, per People. The person who was shocked the most was Shonda Rhimes, who had no clue one of her main cast members was leaving. At the 2016 Vulture Festival, Rhimes said, "I found out maybe three days before you guys found out... It wasn't a big, planned thing. I had a different plan going and then Sara came and said, 'I really need to take a break." 

Ramirez, who identifies as non-binary, said they will always be grateful for their role as the longest-running LGBTQ character in TV history. "It taught me so much, portraying a character that a lot of folks had not seen on TV including myself. I will always have a soft tender place in my heart for that work family and that role. It was the role of a lifetime," the actor told People. Rhimes said she understood why Ramirez needed to do something different. 

"You grow and you change and you do a lot of things, but after a while you start to itch to do something new or you itch to take a break, and it's not like they're going to starve if they take a break. They've earned it," Rhimes said at Vulture Festival (via Entertainment Weekly). If you're wondering if the Tony winner would be open to coming back to "Grey's," Ramirez told Glamour in 2021, "If the stars align in a way that makes it make sense, absolutely."

Justin Chambers was MIA in his last episode

Justin Chambers officially called it quits from "Grey's" in 2019, after almost 16 full seasons playing Dr. Alex Karev, per Entertainment Tonight. "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," he told Deadline in a statement. "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." 

In his final episode, viewers never see Karev, per Radio Times. Through a series of letters, he reveals he left wife Jo for ex-wife Izzie, and some fans were outraged after watching it. One user tweeted, "I'm going to forget I ever saw this episode and just tell myself that Alex died." Another viewer vowed to stop watching the show altogether, writing, "I've stayed through many questionable seasons. But this?"

In "How to Save a Life," Chambers explained that after 15 years, the work became humdrum for him. "For me it [was] sort of a factory job for acting. You just clock in, clock out. Yeah, I guess it is sentimental, but it's sort of like, 'Wow, I just can't believe how fast it's gone'" (via Hollywood Life). Showrunner Krista Vernoff praised "The Offer" actor for his "nuanced portrayal" of Alex. She added on Twitter, "And we will always be grateful for his impact, on our show, on our hearts, on our fans, on the world."

Dr. DeLuca died 'a noble character'

In 2021, Andrew DeLuca died a hero on the operating table after facing off with a human trafficker, per Entertainment Tonight. Giacomo Gianniotto, the actor who played him for seven seasons, told the outlet how he felt when he learned of his character's fate: "I think for me it was more shock. I just felt a little taken aback." Gianniotto told People that "Grey's" producers approached him to say they had been working on a storyline for DeLuca for quite some time and were torn about his character's direction.

"They wanted to tell the best story and really honor everything that was going on...the episode would end with DeLuca's demise. As tragic and as sad as that is, it was a way to have him highlighted as a noble character," the actor said. "[He] went down fighting for what he believed in." As gut-wrenching as the final episode was, fan reactions to the loss of a beloved character were mixed.

One viewer tweeted, "The most beautiful and heartbreaking scene this season." Another fan wrote, "Andrew DeLuca deserved more than this ending." In an interview with Deadline, the "Backpackers" actor, who returned to direct an episode of "Grey's," was asked if DeLuca might ever come back. He said, "Just because DeLuca has died, it doesn't mean that there's not other ways for us to see clips and other manifestations of DeLuca in the future."

An International Women's Day shocker

On International Women's Day in 2018, Deadline announced that Season 14 would be the end of the road for both Sarah Drew and Jessica Capshaw on the series. The decision followed the network inking a deal with Ellen Pompeo to pay her up to $20 million a year, and there was speculation that ABC axed Drew And Capshaw as a result. Showrunner Krista Vernoff refuted the claims, tweeting, "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."

For Drew, who played Dr. April Kepner for nine years on "Grey's," the news was a lot to digest. She took to Twitter to post a message to her fans: "I know you're sad. I'm sad, too. I haven't really had time to process the information." After she left, Drew told reporters that she wasn't watching the drama after her departure. "It's a little painful to kind of go and watch your family move on without you," she said (via People). Deadline reported that Drew would return with Jesse Williams for the show's Season 18 finale.

As for Jessica Capshaw, the opportunity to play Arizona Robbins for ten years, one of the first major LGBTQ characters on network TV, is not lost on her. The "Holidate" actor tweeted a graphic including the message, "I am grateful that I have gotten to bring her to life and for the life that she has brought to me. I am sad to see her go but I am consoled by the idea that she will continue to live on and on in all of our consciences and imaginations."

Brooke Smith lacked the 'magic and chemistry' to stay

What made Brooke Smith's departure from "Grey's” so dramatic is that it wasn't very dramatic at all, per Entertainment Weekly. In Season 5, her character Dr. Erica Hahn bickers with girlfriend Callie and then storms off to her car. That's the last time we ever see her. According to inside sources, all the drama was going on behind the scenes. Network execs allegedly "had issues" with Hahn's character and the sexual innuendos in her relationship with Callie, and they wanted her out.

When Shonda Rhimes gave Smith the news, she definitely hadn't seen it coming. The actor told her EW interviewer, "You said [sometimes networks get cold feet] with gay relationships. And I was so naive. I'm like, 'It's 2008.' But I'm starting to realize that not everyone feels the way I do." Smith said she believes it was a network decision, but Shonda Rhimes wanted to clarify one thing. "Brooke Smith was obviously not fired for playing a lesbian," Rhimes said in a statement (via Entertainment Weekly).

Rhimes explained that the relationship between the characters was missing something. "Unfortunately, we did not find that the magic and chemistry with Brooke's character would sustain in the long run," she stated. The "Big Sky" actor said she never felt like people were uncomfortable with her storyline on the show. "At work I had no sense of it. And more fans seemed to like it than not. I don't think I'm ever going to know [why this really happened]."

Two stars exited after a fatal plane crash

In Season 8, six doctors from Seattle Grace went down in a devastating plane crash, and only four ultimately survived. Chyler Leigh, who played Meredith's half-sister Lexie Grey for five years, died from her injuries in the heartbreaking season finale. As she breathed her last breath, her one true love Dr. Mark Sloan (played by Eric Dane) told her, "So you can't die, okay? You can't die. Because we're supposed to end up together. We're meant to be."

Sadly, Dane wasn't far behind, according to EW. In Season 9, following his directive, Sloan's colleagues removed "McSteamy" from life support after he lapsed into a coma. Both actors said their exits from the show were planned well in advance. In a statement obtained by TVLine, the "Supergirl" actor wrote, "Earlier this year, I made the decision that Season 8 would be my last. I met with Shonda [Rhimes] and we worked together to give Lexie's story appropriate closure."

Dane, a six-season "Grey's" veteran, told Entertainment Weekly he had been offered an opportunity he could not refuse, a starring role in "The Last Ship" on TNT. "Grey's Anatomy is a world — it's not about any one individual actor and the storylines were sort know, heading in different directions," the "Euphoria" actor said. "So it was an opportunity for me to go and I was interested in something different." Dane and Leigh returned to the show together in Season 17.

Dr. Stephanie Edwards had 'a hero's journey'

Jerrika Hinton, who played Dr. Stephanie Edwards on "Grey's" for four seasons, had a conversation about her future on the show early in the thirteenth season, per The Hollywood Reporter. By the end of Season 13, Hinton was written off the series, and she was the one calling the shots. The actor, who was cast in another Shondaland project called "Toast," had previously been scheduled to cut back her hours on the medical drama and work on both series. When "Toast" didn't get picked up, Hinton decided it was time to move on.

In a statement obtained by Entertainment Weekly, Shonda Rhimes wrote, "Actors evolve differently and when an actor like Jerrika comes to me and says she wants to try something new creatively, I like to honor that." In the Season 13 finale, Stephanie, after escaping a rapist by setting him on fire in the locked-down hospital, risked her own life to rescue a young girl. In the end, Stephanie quits her job, vowing to live her life outside the walls of a hospital.

The "Here and Now" actor said her character's storyline wrapped as she hoped it would. "For me, it's the natural conclusion for what has been a journey of self-exploration," she explained to The Hollywood Reporter, adding that it wasn't just about her brave acts in that final episode. "It's her fully and finally seeing her life for what it is and walking a different and hopefully better path. That's a hero's journey."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).