'Grey's Anatomy' Season 16 Finale: James Pickens Jr. Opens Up About Richard Webber's Fate (Exclusive)

The actor talks to ET about Thursday's makeshift season closer and looks ahead to season 17.

Warning: Do not proceed if you have not watched Thursday's finale of Grey's Anatomy. You are entering spoiler territory.

It wasn't planned this way, but Grey's Anatomy finished season 16 with an episode that could have served as a natural finale, answering the question of Richard Webber's fate and leaving several cliffhangers for next season to tackle.

With four episodes left unproduced for the season due to COVID-19, ABC's long-running medical drama -- already renewed for a 17th season -- finally revealed what was wrong with Webber, who had displayed concerning signs of Alzheimer's, the same degenerative disease Meredith's mother Ellis had, and Parkinson's. While a faction of Grey Sloan docs were ready to submit to the fact that Webber had Alzheimer's, it was DeLuca who came in with the last-minute save: Webber was suffering from cobalt poisoning, a side effect from hip replacement surgery he had years ago, and not Alzheimer's. Whew.

It was a miraculous, career-defining moment for the troubled chief resident, who himself is going through a bit of a dicey period following a string of manic episodes (likely genetic) that forced Bailey to temporarily suspend him. But with Webber now back to his normal-ish self, memory restored and all, does this mean he's ready to forgive his estranged wife, Catherine? Eh, not so fast. 

There was a lot going on in the halls of Grey Sloan: Amelia and Link had a beautiful baby boy. Maggie continued to weigh her future with Winston, the medical professional she hooked up with at the convention. DeLuca succumbed to the reality that he may be going down the same road as his father. Owen called off his last-minute wedding to Teddy after discovering she had sex with Koracick hours before. And those are just some of the lingering questions we'll have to wait all summer for to get answers to.

To get an idea on where Grey's goes from here, ET hopped on the phone with James Pickens Jr. for scoop on how this experience changes Webber's outlook on his medical future, his strained relationship with Catherine and how the shortened season affects season 17.

ET:  First of all, how are you doing? How are you handling self-quarantine?

James Pickens Jr.: I'm good, good. I hope you're staying safe and healthy and all that stuff. Oh, well, I got plenty to do around this house, so I have no excuse for saying I don't want to. I'm working, I'm busy. I'm doing some organizing here and doing some purging in the house. I got a closet I can actually go into now. We're working our way up and then down. So, I'm feeling pretty good about myself. I've had plenty to keep me occupied.

Let's talk about tonight’s finale. Richard Webber has had quite the journey on Grey’s this season, especially these last couple of episodes. It’s been a roller-coaster ride, for sure. When did you learn that he would be turning in the doctor's coat and becoming a patient himself?

Early on in the season, I sat down with [showrunner] Krista [Vernoff] and the other writers and they pitched this idea that they had about him and this medical condition. Over 16 seasons I've had a brain aneurysm, I've been electrocuted… I'm the doctor with nine lives here. They pitched this idea about cobalt poisoning. I said, "Oh, that's really interesting." I knew nothing about this condition and from what I understand it's common with that particular kind of metal. I was thinking in the back of my mind, “Is this it? This is the end…,” kind of thing. But they assured me, "You're going to be fine, but we think it'd be a great storyline."

And to join it with the fact that he's been fired by his wife, Catherine, and she buys the new hospital… He's got all these things going in his personal life with his wife, and then this medical condition that comes about. It's been really interesting how they've written how he navigates this. It’s a tribute to the writing staff, their trust in me to take that off the page and make it come to life. I was very intrigued by the idea of it and to see how we were going to play it out.

There was a worry that he had what Meredith’s mother, Ellis Grey, had: Alzheimer’s. 

Right, right.

Personally, I was worried that that was the case. You just don't want to see that happen for this character. Since you know that it wasn’t, how did you navigate playing up the uncertainty for your character? 

It wasn't so much that I was concerned about the Alzheimer's per se, because I knew it was not that, but how to make that real enough that I felt that that was, as the character, [a real possibility]. Could this be? How do I separate this from the actor, who knows it's not that, to the character who has uncertainties and trepidations? And I said, "Well, what is this? Is it Alzheimer's? Is it Parkinson's?" Because that particular malady, cobalt poisoning can manifest itself in several different ways and obviously there's the Alzheimer's component, but there's also a Parkinson's [component] with the trembling of the hands. To convey that through the character was what I thought was really going to be a very exciting challenge as an actor.


DeLuca is the one comes through with a career-defining diagnosis and figures out what's wrong with Webber. Does Webber, in a sense, owe him his life at this point? 

Yeah, I definitely have a newfound appreciation with DeLuca, not that I never appreciated him, but I thought he was pulling a quick trigger with his decisions. But when he comes up with this diagnosis, which was out of left field -- that he was that dogged in finding out and that he had that much respect for my character and what he had done in his early career, I've got a newfound appreciation for him. I would imagine, yeah, in a lot of ways he did resurrect me and give me a new lease on life. So I liked the way they approached that. I love the way that Giacomo [Gianniotti] brought that to life with that character. He did a great job.

There’s also a lot happening with Catherine and Richard’s relationship. At one point, Catherine says she gave up on him once before and she's not going to do it again. But at the end, we see Richard isn't so quick to forgive and forget all that she put him through. So where do they go from here? 

It's going to be interesting to see. To be honest with you I don't know yet, but I'm quite sure Krista and [the writers] have something up their sleeve in terms of that. But yes, obviously Richard feels betrayed by his wife, the fact that she fired him and then he goes over to establish the new hospital and then she, being vindictive, winds up buying the new hospital and then there he is.

There's a lot of betrayal he feels right now from the woman he really loved and thought, “OK, this is the one I'm going to spend the rest of my life with.” And they're both very strong-willed, very intelligent and bright, and they stick to their guns. They do butt heads, but that's the exciting thing about it because that passion relates to how strongly they love one another. And the love is really tested now by the fact that they don't fight like other couples fight. There's a lot more at stake when they do. These are the waters they're going to have navigate here as they move forward. It's going to be interesting to see because as it's left, I don't accept her apology. I'm still pretty pissed off with her.

What is it going to take for him to come around? Is it going to take more than it has in the past? 

You know what? I really don't even have an idea yet. I'm quite sure when we do come back in front of the cameras, Krista and the writing staff is going to have an idea of how they're going to get us back. Whatever it's going to be, it's going to be exciting and I think fans are really going to get a kick out of it. But I think Catherine's the one... she has the tiger by the tail with me and vice versa. We kind of like the idea of getting a little bite here and there being paired up. 

I always go back to season one with Webber and his future because it was established early in the series that he was looking to retire. Do you think this health scare amplifies that a little bit more? Is the clock really ticking now? 

In the past he has felt those sentiments and thoughts, and circumstances pull him back in or there's something that re-energizes him and gives him a purpose again. I think this episode may do the same thing in his life. We don't know how that's going to manifest itself, and I'm guessing now, but I would think this may re-energize him in a way that he may want to utilize all his experiences and skills in another kind of capacity within the hospital. He has a lot left to give in terms of teaching young doctors. That's where his heart is -- being a mentor and being a teacher. I don't know how that will play out but that's how I'm thinking it would look to me in the long run. But you never know what good storylines our writers come up with; they’ll come up with something out of the clear like, “Oh I never thought of that!”

This wasn't supposed to be the finale, but it still kind of worked as a natural season ender. Give me a temperature check of where Grey Sloan is at the end of the season.

It leaves open all these great possibilities for season 17. We have Dr. Cormac Hayes who asked Meredith Grey to go out, and she declined. We have the whole Teddy-Owen-Koracick triangle that's so crazy. That's, I think, a fun storyline. We have Maggie and what she's going through right now [with Winston]. There's Jackson and where he is in his life, going back and forth to Station 19. And then the DeLuca storyline. It leaves a lot open for the writers can delve into and they've been great in letting us interject storyline thoughts that we think would help as well. Definitely a lot of great stuff coming down the pike when we do go back.

I do want to ask you about Maggie and the new man in her life, Winston, who we briefly saw a few episodes back. Is the kind of guy you feel Maggie deserves at this point in her life? 

Yeah, it's going to be interesting to see. Obviously they have a great physical chemistry. They're two extremely good-looking people. The thing was such a whirlwind kind of deal. They hook up during the convention and he's so smitten. He wants her to move to Boston or he's willing to come there and I think she's got a lot of decisions to make. I think it happened so fast for her, she hasn't had really had time to react.

It'd be interesting to see if she comes to me to get my take on it, on where this is. That would be a nice dynamic to investigate. But I think Maggie’s a character who is very calculated; she doesn't go half-cocked. The fact that she did get together with this guy so quick... she's exhilarated by it, but it's also something that she's being very cautious about. She has to reflect and look at herself and say, “Well, I usually don't do this.” There are a lot of beats that can be played here and hopefully that one little piece of it will be her coming to me and seeking advice from me.

The show was forced to cut production short due to the coronavirus outbreak. With four episodes left unproduced for the season, have you been privy to conversations about whether storylines would be moved over to season 17?

I have not as of yet. I think the closer they get to once this thing starts to peter out and it's a lot less murky, [we’ll have a better idea]. They're probably thinking about it now. They’ve got a lot more downtime than they had anticipated, so I guess that gives them a lot of food now in terms of storyline stuff. I think once things start to get clear and we're getting some idea for when we'll come back, they'll start reaching out to the cast and saying, "Hey, this is what we're thinking about doing…" But as of right now, I don't know what that looks like in terms of the landscape of will those shows be moved over to the next season or will this just play out the way it is? I'm not sure right now.

To stay up to date on breaking TV news, sign up for ET's daily newsletter.


Latest News