The news was confirmed by Lincoln himself at the AMC zombie drama's Comic-Con panel on Friday in Hall H.
“I want to say something, because there seems to be an elephant in the room. This will be my last season playing the part of Rick Grimes," an emotional Lincoln began, nearly bursting into tears and his voice cracking. "Now hear me out, please. I love this show. It means everything to me. I love the people that make this show. I promise not to cry, I’ve done enough crying onscreen.”
"I’m particularly fond of the people who watch the show, you people, and this has been the most extraordinary, amazing and beautiful experience of my career, made largely because of you guys and our relationship with you guys in this room and in rooms across America and the world," he said.
"My relationship with Rick Grimes is far from over. And a sort of large part of me will always be a machete-wielding, stetson-wearing, zombie-slaying sheriff deputy from London, England," he joked, not wanting to turn his statement into an "Oscar acceptance speech or an obituary." "This has always been an ensemble and it will continue to be an ensemble. No one is bigger than the story, and the story this year is unbelievable.”
While Lincoln confirmed his impending exit, he stopped short of sharing details or the context surrounding Rick’s departure.
"I’m going to take a break for a while. These guys are and everybody back at Atlanta are the greatest surrogate family I could have ever wished but I do have a family and it’s time to go home,” he said when a fan asked how he will be leaving Rick behind and what he’ll be doing next. “I don’t really know. It’s been so much a part of my life. I’ve breathed it for 10 years, but what I do know is I believe in the story so much but that I can’t spoil it for you. This is a really terrific story for Rick’s story and Michonne."
"There are a couple of things I’m thinking about doing, but I’m so in love with Rick Grimes and the people with this show [that it’s difficult] to put him down," added Lincoln, who received a huge standing ovation from the crowd.
Rumors began to swirl in May that the zombie drama's leading man was poised to exit after the upcoming ninth season. Collider, who first broke the news, reported that Lincoln was expected to appear in only six episodes in the new season. There was also speculation that Lauren Cohan would have a diminished role in the coming season, due to her co-lead status on ABC's new midseason dramedy, Whiskey Cavalier. Cohan's departure was not addressed.
The Walking Dead's season nine trailer, which debuted at Friday's panel before Lincoln's big announcement, seemed to hint that we might be saying goodbye to Rick -- while teasing a possible new leading man. "Are we on the same side, Rick?" Norman Reedus' Daryl asks in the trailer.
"Well, you tell me," Rick replies.
The trailer also confirmed the show's season nine time jump, showing Maggie (Cohan) and her baby, the aftermath of last season's war against the Saviors, as well as a handful of new characters. Watch below.
On Thursday, Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman shed more light in an interview with Kevin Smith for IMDb at Comic-Con, strongly suggesting that Lincoln may truly be out the door. "It looks that way," Kirkman replied when asked if season nine was Lincoln's last. With Rick still alive in the comics, any absence on the series would deviate heavily from the source material. He admitted that the narrative shift "does make the differences between the comic and the show a little bit more pronounced.”
“This is somebody that I’ve known for almost a decade, somebody that I love," Kirkman said. "He’s been sweating in Georgia away from his family for so long.” He teased that Lincoln “wants to do something special on the way out. We’ve got something amazing planned ... Anybody who loves Rick Grimes, loves the world of The Walking Dead, you’re gonna want to see what we do.”
Former Walking Dead showrunner Scott M. Gimpletold The Hollywood Reporter in April that season nine would represent a different chapter in the show's history.
"We knew for a long time that this season was, in many ways, the end of a chapter of the show," Gimple said of season eight. "The differences that people will be seeing in season nine and beyond are going to be pronounced. It's going to be a very different show with characters handling very different issues, challenges and threats than we've seen before. These characters will be different in a lot of ways."