'Grey's Anatomy' Behind the Scenes: A Look Back at the Show's Real-Life Controversies

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Grey's Anatomy's drama doesn't end with its scripts. The long-running ABC medical show, which is currently airing its 17th season, has endured off-screen drama since its 2005 premiere, something that only grew as the show became more successful.

In a recent interview with Variety, Grey's star Ellen Pompeo said the unscripted controversies were "a real combination of exhaustion and stress and drama" where actors were "competing with each other -- and envious."

"There was a lot of drama on-screen and drama off-screen, and young people navigating intense stardom for the first time in their lives," showrunner Krista Vernoff added to the outlet. "I think that a lot of those actors, if they could go back in time and talk to their younger selves, it would be a different thing. Everybody’s grown and changed and evolved -- but it was an intense time."

Keep scrolling for a complete timeline of Grey's Anatomy's most newsworthy off-screen moments.

ISAIAH WASHINGTON

Greys - Isaiah Washington
ABC

The first major off-screen controversy happened when Isaiah Washington, who played Dr. Preston Burke, and Patrick Dempsey, who played Dr. Derek Shepard, reportedly came close to blows during an argument about the production schedule.

At the time, Washington made light of the situation in an interview with People, telling the magazine that his and Dempsey's "faces are too beautiful" to take punches. 

"In close families arguments happen," Washington added. "They work it out."

Days later, though, Washington issued an apology to the same outlet, after reports surfaced that, during the argument, he had referred to T.R. Knight, another actor on the show, as "a f**got."

"I sincerely regret my actions and the unfortunate use of words during the recent incident on-set," Washington said. "Both are beneath my own personal standards. I have nothing but respect for my coworkers and have apologized personally to everyone involved."

Three months later, Washington used the same derogatory term on-camera, after he and the rest of the Grey's cast won a Golden Globe. At the time, Washington was denying having said the word in the first place.

Following Washington's Golden Globes comment, Katherine Heigl slammed her co-star to Access Hollywood.

"I'm going to be really honest right now, he needs to just not speak in public. Period," she reportedly said of Washington. "I’m sorry, that did not need to be said. I’m not OK with it."

Washington was fired from the show in June 2007, and spoke out again a month later in an interview on Larry King Live.

"We're waiting on Ellen [Pompeo] for off-camera. And I said, 'Well, why are we waiting on Ellen? I don't need to wait on Ellen. We just have one line that he'll say to you and then you can go on your way.' Then he says, 'Well, I need Ellen.' And I said, 'Well, I don't need Ellen. I can act,'" Washington said of his and Dempsey's fight. "... He became unhinged, face-to-face, spittle to spittle, in my face. I did not start it."

"I pushed him out of my face and it just took off from there. I began to say a lot of things that I'm not really proud of, but all referring to myself and how I felt I was being treated," he continued. "... I said, 'There's no way you're going to treat me like a B-word or a P-word or the F-word. You can't treat me this way in front of our crew.'"

Washington added that he "never" referred to anyone else as the derogatory term.

Years after the fact, Grey's creator Shonda Rhimes brought Washington back to the show to appear on Sandra Oh's final episode. Washington's Dr. Burke and Oh's Dr. Cristina Yang had previously been engaged on the series. At the time, Rhimes defended her decision to bring Washington back. 

"My first decision and my first responsibility is to the story," Rhimes told Entertainment Weekly after the episode aired in May 2014. "I have to be the keeper of the story and make sure that we’re telling the story we need to tell, regardless of whatever outside factors are involved or whatever history is involved and, frankly, Sandra was so lovely and open to it. It has been a really kind of amazing experience." 

"I also want to just be clear that Isaiah is a person that we all love and have loved for a very long time. I feel like there have been a lot of people that have been like, 'How can you do this?' And I feel very strongly and fully believe in people’s ability to grow and change and learn from their mistakes and when they know better, to do better," she added. "If people don’t think that, over the course of seven years, it’s possible for a human being to change, then there really is no future for the human race at all."

The feud seemed to dissipate with Washington's Grey's return, until November 2020 that is, when the actor reignited the spat with Heigl on Twitter. 

"This woman once proclaimed that I should ‘never’ be allowed to speak publicly again," he wrote, referencing Heigl's 2007 comment. "The world agreed with her proclamation back then and protested for my job and my head in 65 languages. I wish I was on Twitter in 2007, because I will NEVER stop exercising my free speech."

"I’ve learned that all money ain’t good money and no amount of money can replace your dignity and integrity," Washington wrote in a second tweet. "Some call it living by your principles."

Heigl and Knight have yet to respond to Washington's tweet.

T.R. KNIGHT

T.R. Knight
Scott Garfield/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

After reports swirled that Washington referred to Knight as "a f**got" during his 2006 fight with Dempsey, the actor who played Dr. George O'Malley came out as gay to People.

"I guess there have been a few questions about my sexuality, and I’d like to quiet any unnecessary rumors that may be out there," he said at the time. "While I prefer to keep my personal life private, I hope the fact that I’m gay isn’t the most interesting part of me."

During an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show shortly thereafter, Knight revealed that he felt pressured to come out following the incident.

"I’ve never been called that to my face. So I think when that happened, something shifted, and it became bigger than myself," he said, according to People. "I was under no delusions. My friends on the set knew. We talked about it. Publicly it’s not my thing to call up People magazine and be like, 'Hey, you want to know something about me?'"

"I could’ve just let it slide and not said anything, but it became important," he added. "It became important to make the statement."

In July 2009, Knight announced his departure from the series. At the time, he told Entertainment Weekly that he decided to leave after a gradual "breakdown of communication" with Rhimes.

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

In the same interview, Knight claimed that Rhimes tried to discourage him from coming out after the incident with Washington. 

"I think she was concerned about having my statement come out so close to the [initial] event," Knight said, a claim that Rhimes denied.

"I said, 'If you want to come out, that’s awesome. We’ll totally support that.' And then he went away, thought about it, and came back and said, 'I’m going to make this statement,'" Rhimes told the outlet. "I remember saying to [fellow 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. I was like, 'We are not going to do that.' The idea that a gay actor can’t play a straight man is insulting."

KATHERINE HEIGL

Katherine Heigl
Scott Garfield/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

In addition to speaking out after the drama between Washington and Knight, Heigl, who played Dr. Izzie Stevens, had some controversy of her own. After winning the Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series at the 2007 Emmy Awards, Heigl withdrew herself from consideration the following year.

"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 said in a statement at the time. "In addition, I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such materials."

Rhimes responded shortly thereafter, saying that Heigl's lessened role was due to her movie schedule.

"I wrote the back half light for Katherine so she could do her movie," Rhimes said during a showrunner's panel, according to Entertainment Weekly

Less than two years later, Heigl exited the series. 

"I am done. We just finalized our agreement," she told EW in 2010. "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."

The actress added that she wanted to spend more time with her daughter, Naleigh, whom she and husband Josh Kelley had recently adopted.

"At the end of the day, there wasn’t a great way to compromise the work schedule that didn’t negatively affect the crew or the cast. It wasn’t feeling fair to them or the show to ask them to bend around my needs," she said. "... I just had to make a choice. I hope I made the right one… It sucks. You wish you could have it all exactly the way you want it. But that’s not life… I had to try to find the courage to move on. And I am sad. And I’m scared. But I felt it was the right thing to do."

Two years after Heigl left the show, Rhimes spoke out about her.

"On some level, it stung and on some level I was not surprised," Rhimes told Oprah Winfrey, according to TV Guide. "When people show you who they are, believe them."

The next year, Pompeo shared some thoughts on Heigl's exit too.

"When Katie left, it was tough. You could understand why she wanted to go -- when you’re offered $12 million a movie and you’re only 26. But Katie’s problem is that she should not have renewed her contract," Pompeo told the New York Post.  "She re-upped, took a big raise and then tried to get off the show. And then her movie career did not take off."

In October 2014, while discussing her other show, Scandal, with THR,  Rhimes once again spoke negatively about Heigl.

"There are no Heigls in this situation," she said of the Scandal set, adding that she has a "no a**holes" policy. 

"I don't put up with bulls**t or nasty people," she said. "I don't have time for it."

During a 2016 appearance on The Howard Stern Show, Heigl expressed regret over the drama that started it all.

"I didn't feel good about my performance. There was a part of me that thought, because I had won the year before, that I needed juicy, dramatic, emotional material. And I just didn't have that that season," she said of when she withdrew her name from Emmy consideration. "I was treating it a little black and white and taking it a little personally, but I think there were 12 series regulars on that show, and everybody deserved their juicy, dramatic, emotional season. I'm not a writer, but I imagine it must be difficult to do that for everybody."

"I was really embarrassed. So, I went in to Shonda and said, 'I'm so sorry. That was not cool. I should not have said that.' And I shouldn't have said anything publicly," Heigl added. "But at the time, I didn't think anybody would notice...I just quietly didn't submit. Then it became a story, and then I felt obligated to make my statement. And...shut up, Katie. I should have been like, 'It's personal, whatever.'"

PATRICK DEMPSEY

Greys - Patrick Dempsey
ABC

Hours before Dr. Derek Shepard was killed off of Grey's Anatomy in 2015, the news leaked when an EW subscriber received the spoiler-laden issue ahead of time. In the magazine, Dempsey called his character's demise "a natural progression with the way the story was unfolding."

Just months after Dempsey's departure, Rhimes made people question how amicable his exit had been when she said she had killed off a character because she didn't like the actor.

While she didn't name names, many speculated that Rhimes was referring to Dempsey.

"I think she loves being provocative and that’s fine for who she is," Dempsey told EW of Rhimes' comment. "That gets people talking about all the stuff that she’s doing. She’s an amazing woman who is incredibly productive. She’s promoting a book. She’s promoting three shows. And she’s emerging as the star of all of these things. I think she knows how to deal with the media and what she needs to say to get the response that she’s looking for. She’s very savvy."

Whether or not Rhimes had been referring to Dempsey, things between them couldn't have ended too badly, as the actor came back to the series for its season 17 premiere.

ELLEN POMPEO

Ellen Pompeo
Raymond Liu/ABC via Getty Images

The leading lady has stayed largely out of the infighting that's plagued the Grey's cast, though she did criticize others for their participation in such activities back in 2013.

"Hurt feelings, combined with instant success and huge paychecks started things spinning out of control," she told the New York Post. "The crazier things got, as I watched all the tumult with Isaiah and then the Katie thing, I started to focus on the work. Maybe it is my Boston, blue-collar upbringing. I just tried to not pay attention to all the noise around me."

In 2018, Pompeo became the highest-paid actress on a primetime drama. As a result, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she revealed some challenging moments that led her to that milestone.

"For me, Patrick leaving the show was a defining moment, deal-wise," she said. "They could always use him as leverage against me -- 'We don't need you; we have Patrick' -- which they did for years. I don't know if they also did that to him, because he and I never discussed our deals."

Pompeo went on to claim that she asked to negotiate with Dempsey in an effort to stop the back-and-forth.

"There were many times where I reached out about joining together to negotiate, but he was never interested in that," she claimed. "At one point, I asked for $5,000 more than him just on principle, because the show is Grey's Anatomy and I'm Meredith Grey. They wouldn't give it to me. ... And I could have walked away, so why didn't I? It's my show; I'm the number one. I'm sure I felt what a lot of these other actresses feel: Why should I walk away from a great part because of a guy? You feel conflicted but then you figure, 'I'm not going to let a guy drive me out of my own house.'"

Pompeo added that she got "a nice chuckle" when ratings spiked following Dempsey's exit.

Then in a May 2018 interview with ET, Pompeo appeared to throw some shade at the Grey's cast members who had been killed off the show, a group that included Dempsey.

"You only get killed off when your behavior is bad. If you're a nice actor, you die nice," she said. 

A few months later, Pompeo revealed that she and Dempsey hadn't spoken since his 2015 exit.

In a 2019 interview with Variety, Pompeo echoed her Post comments from years prior when she called the Grey's set "toxic."

"We had a serious, serious culture problem on Grey’s for a good number of years -- I would say the first 10 years," she said. "We had serious, serious culture issues. Very bad behavior, really toxic work environment."

Pompeo said that she and Rhimes decided to "turn the page and start a new chapter and turn the culture around behind the curtain" following the show's 10th season.

SANDRA OH

Greys - Sandra Oh
ABC

Oh exited the series back in 2013 on good terms. While she first told THR that she'd be open to a return, she changed course during a interview with Variety in 2018.

"I'm just going to say no. I’m just going to put that down there because it’s been four years since then, and I’ve really got to try and create much more of that separation," she said. "Even though I could just talk on and on and on about that show and what I feel like I learned from it and continue learning from it. It was so special, lightning in a bottle that’s lasted for over a decade."

When speaking to the same outlet in June 2020, Oh recalled having to fight about some of her character's storylines.

"I would go 10 rounds in saying, 'It’s not right.' You’ve got to do different levels with the writer, and then you bump it up and you eventually get to [Shonda]. You’ve got to bother her," she said. "When it felt like such an impasse, we would both be digging in our heels hugely." 

Oh didn't view those discussions as a bad thing, though.

"Just the friction itself, a lot of times a third thing would come out, and it would not be in my sight of consciousness at all; it would take that pushing against someone equally as strong," she said. "I started to learn how to trust that."

SARAH DREW & JESSICA CAPSHAW

Jessica Capshaw and Sarah Drew
Eric McCandless/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Sarah Drew and Jessica Capshawexited the series in 2018, though neither actress had wanted to depart. In a statement to ET at the time, Vernoff said that saying goodbye to Drew's Dr. April Kepner and Capshaw's Dr. Arizona Robbins was a story choice.

"As writers, our job is to follow the stories where they want to go and sometimes that means saying goodbye to characters we love," she said.

Drew expressed shock at the news on social media.

"I know you're sad. I'm sad too," she wrote in part. "I haven't really had the time to process this information. I've been with it for less than 48 hours."

Capshaw, meanwhile, tweeted that she was "sad to see" her character go.

In an interview with THR following her exit, Drew admitted that her "confidence had gotten a bit shaken" after leaving the show.

"I would be perfectly happy not being April again," she said of a potential return. "I don't feel a particular urge to play her any time soon. I love that character."

SARA RAMIREZ

Greys - Sara Ramirez
ABC

Sara Ramirez, who played Dr. Callie Torres, announced her departure from the series in 2016. According to Us Weekly, during an Instagram Live two years later, Rhimes said Ramirez's work on Madam Secretary was the reason that Dr. Torres couldn't come back to Grey's.

"Let me tell you something: we tried," Rhimes said. "CBS has a hold of her because she's on another show, and we can't get her. But we love her. Always. This is her home. Come home, Callie."

Ramirez disputed Rhimes' statement though, tweeting, "For the record @CBS has been nothing but gracious and generous to me. They are open to Callie coming back! The ball is in @ABCNetwork’s court."

JUSTIN CHAMBERS

Justin Chambers in Grey's Anatomy
Mike Rosenthal/ABC via Getty Images

Fans were devastated in January 2020 when Justin Chambers, who had played Dr. Alex Karev since the show's inception, was revealed to be leaving the series. Making things worse was the fact that his final episode had already aired.

"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. 

While he didn't appear onscreen again after announcing his exit, his voice did. Throughout his final episode, Dr. Karev was revealed to have left Seattle to go live with his former flame, Heigl's Dr. Stevens, with whom he shared twins.

Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. 

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