From T.R. Knight and Katherine Heigl to Sara Ramirez and Patrick Dempsey to Ellen Pompeo's limited role in season 19, ET chronicles the history of Grey's Anatomy's biggest and most dramatic cast exits over the course of the medical drama's life. Here's a look back at all the stars who have passed through the halls of Grey Sloan Memorial.
Ellen Pompeo (Dr. Meredith Grey)
Pompeo is taking a step back in season 19 of Grey's, appearing in only eight episodes as she explores other projects (aka a Hulu drama about orphans) and looks ahead to new challenges. The star and executive producer, who remains one of the series' last original cast members and has played Meredith Grey since the series' inception in 2005, explained to ET why she felt it was time to pass the baton, so to speak. (She will still narrate the season.) "It's still Grey's. She's still there in spirit and that's the house that Grey built, so she's always there," Pompeo assured in a September 2022 interview. "She just has to step away for a little bit to do a Hulu show. It's a great company to work for and I'm really, really lucky that they've given me the opportunity to do both, and so I had to take it." Though it's unclear how Grey's will transition Pompeo out for the time being, the leading lady's limited presence in season 19 marks a huge turning point for the show, which is approaching the year as a "rebirth."
Even if Pompeo's season 19 departure is only temporary, the actress has been candid about the future of Grey's without Meredith at the center of it. "Trying to reinvent the show and continually trying to reinvent the show is the challenge at this point, and listen, the show speaks to a lot of people, and the young people love the show," Pompeo told ET in May 2022. "It's inspired so many generations of healthcare workers, so, I think for the young people, it's a really good piece of content and we're going to try to keep it going for the young people, not necessarily with me, but keep it going beyond me."
The longtime star's final episode as a series regular aired Feb. 23, 2023, and saw Meredith saying goodbye to Seattle as she started a new chapter in Boston after accepting Jackson's job offer to work on Alzheimer's research. Though Pompeo won't be a regular presence on the show, she promised that she will return to the halls of Grey Sloan. "For the record, it's not really my final. It's a little bit of a trick they're playing on people," Pompeo told ET ahead of her farewell in February 2023, before confirming, "It is my final episode for a while." While she's away, she will continue to narrate the series and fulfill her executive producing duties.
Kelly McCreary (Dr. Maggie Pierce)
McCreary announced her departure from Grey's Anatomy after nine seasons on March 17, 2023. Her final series regular episode as Dr. Maggie Pierce, whom she has played since the end of season 10, is set for April 13, though she is expected to appear at least one more time before season 19 wraps. "After nine seasons, I am saying goodbye to Maggie Pierce and her Grey Sloan family. It has been a tremendous honor to be a part of such a legendary television institution as Grey’s Anatomy," McCreary said in a statement to ET. She reflected on her time on the long-running medical drama and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to experience the ride. "To spend nine years exploring a character inside and out, while reaching a global audience with impactful stories, is a rare gift. It has afforded me an opportunity to collaborate with, learn from and be inspired by countless brilliant artists both in front of and behind the camera. Playing Maggie Pierce has been one of the true joys of my life and I leave with profound gratitude for every step of this journey. I am excited for this next chapter, and what the future holds."
Richard Flood (Dr. Cormac Hayes)
Flood left Grey's in the middle of season 18 following a nearly three-year run. The actor, who initially joined the series in season 16 as a potential love interest for Meredith, exited in the March 3, 2022 episode. "Honestly, I was very happy. I felt it was the right time," Flood said in an interview at the time. "When I started, I always thought that three years on something was really as much as I’d like to do. I’m always eager to see what else is out there and try and stretch myself in different directions and do different types of TV and film. Three years was perfect for me, so I was very happy."
Greg Germann (Dr. Tom Koracick)
Germann's exit in the May 20, 2021 episode of Grey's Anatomy came as a bit of a surprise, as much of the attention had been paid to longtime series regular Jesse Williams' departure in the same hour. So when it was revealed that Germann would also be leaving as a series regular (but possibly may return as a guest star down the line), it was a true bummer. "Greg Germann is a comic genius and we are so lucky that he brought his talents to our show these last few years," showrunner/executive producer Krista Vernoff said in a statement to ET the day the news broke. "We will miss Greg terribly in the day to day -- but we plan to see Tom Koracick again!" Added Germann: "To have worked with all the incredibly talented people involved with Grey’s over the past few years has been such a privilege. A big thank you to the fans as it has truly been a shared experience!"
Germann returned for the Nov. 3, 2022 episode in season 19, which also featured Williams back in the Grey's universe. In the hour, Germann's Koracick, who relocated to Boston, went to Debbie Allen's Catherine regarding a personal matter.
Jesse Williams (Dr. Jackson Avery)
Williams' departure was announced ahead of Sarah Drew's return on the May 6, 2021 episode in season 17, which reunited Jackson and April and provided closure for fans and for that relationship. The 41-year-old actor's final Grey's episode aired May 20, 2021, though he would later return for the 400th episode a year later alongside Drew. “I will forever be grateful for the boundless opportunities provided me by Shonda, the network, studio, fellow castmates, our incredible crew, Krista [Vernoff], Ellen [Pompeo] and Debbie [Allen]. As an actor, director and person, I have been obscenely lucky to learn so much from so many and I thank our beautiful fans, who breathe so much energy and appreciation into our shared worlds," Williams said in a statement to ET. "The experience and endurance born of creating nearly 300 hours of leading global television is a gift I’ll carry always. I am immensely proud of our work, our impact and to be moving forward with so many tools, opportunities, allies and dear friends.”
Williams stepped back into the Grey's world for the Nov. 3, 2022 episode, where he returned as Jackson, who had since relocated to Boston. Williams also directed the episode. The actor later returned in the fifth episode of season 19 in a Boston-set hour, which he also directed, where he offered Meredith the opportunity to work on Alzheimer's research.
Giacomo Gianniotti (Dr. Andrew DeLuca)
Gianniotti saw his beloved character, DeLuca, receive a hero's sendoff when the doctor -- who had gotten his bipolar disorder under control at the start of season 17 -- died in the March 11, 2021 episode after getting stabbed following a wild goose chase of a sex trafficker that led him (and his sister Carina) all over Seattle. There were hints that the Grey Sloan attending was going to recover from his injuries after successfully undergoing emergency surgery, but unexpected complications led him to bleed out and die on the operating table. Gianniotti also appeared on the beach alongside Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey to say goodbye.
Following his character's death, Gianniotti spoke to ET about learning DeLuca wouldn't survive past season 17. "[Showrunner] Krista [Vernoff] and [executive producer] Debbie [Allen] were more emotional than I was, because I think for me it was more shock. I just felt a little taken aback... They had probably spent more time with this idea and with this news, so they were already beyond the shock and more into the mourning of a great friend having to leave the show, you know? But it was beautiful and we had a great conversation and we reminisced about all these years working together, how beautiful it's been and how we get to give DeLuca a send-off that is worthy of his character and all that he's given to the show, so I feel very happy about the experience."
Justin Chambers (Dr. Alex Karev)
Chambers announced in mid-January 2020 that he would be leaving Grey's Anatomy after 15 years on the medical drama, ET confirmed. Adding to the abrupt announcement is the news that Chambers' last episode already aired on Nov. 14, 2019. "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," Chambers said in a statement to ET. "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. As I move on from Grey’s Anatomy, I want to thank the ABC family, Shonda Rhimes, original cast members Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens, and the rest of the amazing cast and crew, both past and present, and, of course, the fans for an extraordinary ride," he added. Deadline was first to report the news.
Fans first met Alex in the show's pilot in 2005. He was a surgical intern at Seattle Grace Hospital, before moving up to resident and becoming a pediatric surgical fellow. Quickly becoming a fan-favorite, viewers witnessed Alex wed Katherine Heigl's character, Izzie Stevens, and then intern Jo Wilson played by Camilla Luddington.
Jessica Capshaw (Dr. Arizona Robbins)
In the penultimate season 14 episode, details of Capshaw's departure from Grey's were revealed: She was moving to New York City to be closer to the daughter she shares with her ex, Callie, and helping Nicole Herman open up a new clinic. In the finale, it was hinted that she and Callie may also be rekindling their romance. The announcement in March that Capshaw would be leaving, after playing one of TV's few LGBTQ characters for 10 seasons, was a shock to the system for fans. "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 our imaginations," the actress wrote at the time.
Sarah Drew (Dr. April Kepner)
Drew, who played April since season 6, was written out of the show at the end of season 14 and she got her happy ending, walking down the aisle in a surprise wedding with an old flame, Matthew -- with her ex-husband, Jackson, there to witness the happy day. She also decided to leave Grey Sloan to do God's work, helping homeless communities in Seattle. But there was some worry that she wouldn't survive the season. Things weren't looking good for the devout Christian doctor in the penultimate episode, as she was seen unconscious and barely clinging to life after suffering a car accident. Thankfully, she made it out with barely a scratch. Whew. Ellen Pompeo hinted to ET in May that Drew's character would not meet a horrific end -- and thankfully, she was right. "You only get killed off when your behavior is bad. If you're a nice actor, you die nice. ... But, yeah, these endings aren't tragic."
The actress later returned for a one-episode appearance in season 17, reuniting her with Jesse Williams and to offer proper closure for Jackson and April's storyline. In the episode, the former couple decided to relocate to Boston to begin a new chapter in their professional careers and possibly rekindle their romance. Drew also came back to Grey's alongside Williams for the franchise's 400th episode in May 2022.
Martin Henderson (Dr. Nathan Riggs)
Though Henderson's time as Riggs on Grey's was relatively brief -- he joined midway through the 12th season and left early on in season 14 -- he made his time on the series count. An Army doctor who had a friendship and deep history with fellow Grey Sloan doc Owen, he grew to become Meredith's main love interest following Patrick Dempsey's departure, but Riggs and Meredith's romance was cut short when he was reunited with his former love, Owen's previously presumed dead sister, Megan. In the end, the pair decided to move to Los Angeles together.
Jerrika Hinton (Dr. Stephanie Edwards)
Hinton joined the medical drama in its ninth season, staying on for five seasons as Stephanie, one of Grey Sloan's surgical residents, and leaving at the end of the season 13 finale after suffering devastating burns following a fiery explosion in one of the hospital wings. Her near-death experience was enough for Stephanie to change course, and she made a declaration that she wanted to live her own life now. Hinton revealed to ET in February that she pitched a version of Stephanie's final episode where she died. "My heart grows to think that I did get a hero's end -- that I got to go out in a way that was not just incredibly human and honest, but also inspirational."
Sara Ramirez (Dr. Callie Torres)
Ramirez announced her decision to leave the show after 10 seasons of playing one of TV's groundbreaking bisexual characters following the season 12 finale. In Ramirez's final episode, she and her ex, Arizona, agreed that they would co-parent their daughter together. “I’m deeply grateful to have spent the last 10 years with my family at Grey’s Anatomy & ABC but for now, I’m taking some welcome time off,” Ramirez wrote in her note in 2016. “Shonda been so incredible to work for, & we will definitely continue our conversations!”
Patrick Dempsey (Dr. Derek Shepherd)
Dempsey's exit in season 11 was one of the most shocking moments in the history of Grey's, as his character, also known as "McDreamy," was one-half of the main couple on the series alongside Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey. In his final episode, Derek was rushed to the ER after a large semi truck struck his car and the team of under-trained doctors were unable to save him in time, forcing Meredith to pull the plug. “Derek Shepherd is and will always be an incredibly important character -- for Meredith, for me and for the fans. I absolutely never imagined saying goodbye to our 'McDreamy.' Patrick Dempsey’s performance shaped Derek in a way that I know we both hope became a meaningful example -- happy, sad, romantic, painful and always true -- of what young women should demand from modern love,” creator Shonda Rhimes said in April 2015. “His loss will be felt by all."
Dempsey later returned for multiple episodes in season 17, surprising longtime Grey's viewers when he appeared at the end of the premiere. "The idea just struck me so I just said to him, would you ever consider coming and being a part of the storytelling this season?" Pompeo shared, referencing Dempsey's cancer foundation in Maine, where he helps cancer patients and cancer survivors. "There’s just so much darkness, and we knew that coming together would be a little ray of light. And so, I think we had the same idea, at the core, to want to help people and bring a smile to people’s faces. So, he loved the idea, and we were just so excited, and we had a ball filming it."
"We hadn’t spoken or been together for a while. It was a great opportunity to catch up and say, 'OK, what can we do for all the frontline responders?'" Dempsey said. "I’ve been tracking what Grey’s had been doing with giving masks, and making sure that people had the right equipment, and it came from that place. 'OK, what can we do to make people feel better, to give some comfort in this time of uncertainty,' and that’s how it began."
Sandra Oh (Dr. Cristina Yang)
Oh was one of the original cast members on Grey's when it debuted in 2005 and was on the show for 10 seasons until she left in 2014, when Cristina made the leap to relocate and start anew in Zurich. As Meredith's "person," Owen's on-again/off-again love and a star surgeon, Oh's character was one of the most beloved of the series and speculation of a potential return has permeated ever since her departure. "I've gotta tell you, those rumors, I don't know who starts them but it really is tough," Oh admitted to ET Canada in 2016. "No, I have no plans to return to Grey's any time soon." But Oh did say in a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter that she'd be game to return for the series finale.
Eric Dane (Dr. Mark Sloan)
The "McSteamy" to Patrick Dempsey's "McDreamy," Dane joined the ABC drama as a recurring guest star in the sophomore season before being promoted to series regular in season three, and his character, Mark, was immediately dubbed the ladies' man of the hospital. His presence at the hospital caused more wrinkles than it stabilized the staff, with spicy affairs with Derek's estranged wife Addison, Callie and Lexie -- the latter a relationship he grew to embrace. Dane was written off in dramatic fashion; after Lexie's death following the eighth season finale plane crash, Mark succumbed to his injuries.
Dane later returned for a cameo appearance in season 17, reuniting him with Ellen Pompeo and Chyler Leigh.
Chyler Leigh (Dr. Lexie Grey)
Meredith's half-sister Lexie entered the picture in season three as part of that year's new class of interns, but became an integral part of the fabric of the series when she was upped to series regular at the start of season four. She became romantically involved with Mark in an on-again/off-again romance, and the two eventually reunited not long before they were both victims of a horrific plane crash at the end of season eight, during which she was the first to die. "My experience on Grey’s Anatomy is something that I will treasure for the rest of my life. I want to take this time to say thank you to the fans," Leigh told TVLine. "Your unconditional love and support have made these last five years very special for me. I look forward to my next chapter and I hope you will continue to follow me on my journey.
Leigh returned for a special cameo in season 17, alongside Ellen Pompeo and Eric Dane, though her scenes were filmed against a green screen as she was up in Vancouver to wrap up her Supergirl run. "I was sitting on an apple box, and I was talking to tennis balls. So in that sense, it was interesting. But understanding there are dynamics between Lexie and Meredith, and then Lexie and Mark. It was really special to be able to be part of it and especially telling such a powerful story," she later told ET about her experience. "The tribute of this season is really towards first responders and their experience during the whole pandemic, so to be part of that was obviously very special. And to be able to close the chapter for Lexie, and to appear in a way where she's not eaten by wolves. Kind of bring a little life back to it... It was a special experience to be able to be part of that."
Kate Walsh (Dr. Addison Montgomery)
Addison's introduction on Grey's at the end of the first season is still one of the most memorable moments of the series. Still, she left after season 3 after deciding to have a baby and visiting her friend, Naomi, a fertility specialist in California at Oceanside Wellness Group, making the move to the Golden State permanent. Walsh's spinoff, Private Practice, debuted in the fall of 2007 and ran for six seasons, but she would pop back in and out on Grey's through its eighth season.
Walsh later reprised her character with a multi-episode arc in season 18 and returned in a similar capacity in season 19. "We had been talking about it for a while, [me] coming back and just having a little visit," Walsh told ET in October 2021 of her season 18 return. "It's such an iconic show, it was such an important show for me in my life, in my career and so [executive producer/showrunner] Krista [Vernoff] and I had been talking and trying to find a time where it was the right time for Grey's and storylines and scheduling and all of that. And I thought, you know what? This is the right time."
Katherine Heigl (Dr. Izzie Stevens)
One of the original Grey's stars, Heigl left midway through season six after playing the bubbly, upbeat intern-turned-surgical resident Izzie for over 100 episodes. In her final episode, Heigl's character discovered she was cancer-free, attempted to reconcile with her ex, Alex, and turned down an offer to get her job back after getting fired, opting to move on for a fresh start. Heigl, who won the Emmy for her Grey's role in 2007, memorably took her name out of consideration in 2008 because she didn't feel she "was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination," a reference to her reduced workload that year.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Denny Duquette)
While Morgan only appeared in about two dozen episodes, he remains one of Grey's most memorable characters, playing Denny, a patient-turned-love interest for Izzie in the second and third seasons. Though the heart transplant Denny came in for was successful, he died suddenly after a stroke -- but not until after he'd proposed to Izzie and she'd accepted. Later, Izzie used the money he left her to open up the Denny Duquette Memorial Clinic. In season five, Morgan returned for a new arc when Izzie began hallucinating Denny around the time she discovered she was diagnosed with cancer.
T.R. Knight (Dr. George O'Malley)
Knight was the first major cast departure for Grey's, leaving in tragic yet heroic fashion at the end of season five. In his final episodes, his beloved character, George, ran in front of a bus in an effort to save a woman but was hit himself -- still one of TV's most shocking moments -- resulting in being completely unrecognizable to the doctors when he was rushed in. He would later die from his injuries, which became the topic of early season six, as his former colleagues mourned his death and attended his funeral. One of the original interns on Grey's, George was a puppy-eyed doctor whose close friendship with Meredith, fumbling romances with Izzie and Callie and adversarial dynamic with Alex made him even more relatable to viewers.
The Grey's alum later returned for a special guest appearance in season 17, appearing in the Dec. 3, 2020 episode for the first time since leaving in 2009. He shared a poignant scene with Grey's OGs Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr. "George O'Malley will always claim my heart," Knight wrote on Instagram following the episode. "Thank you to Ellen, Chandra, Jim, Krista and all the familiar faces for once again sharing your beautiful light."
Isaiah Washington (Dr. Preston Burke)
Washington was one of the original doctors on Grey's when it debuted in 2005. He was fired in 2007 after the third season, following an incident where Washington allegedly used a gay slur in reference to T.R. Knight during an on-set argument and clashed with other co-stars. The actor eventually returned to Grey's for a 2014 episode to help kick off Sandra Oh's exit.