Grey's Anatomy: The real reason why these actors left

Grey's Anatomy, has cemented itself into pop culture history. As one of longest-running scripted primetime TV shows and, at the time of this writing, the longest primetime medical drama (beating out ER), the show is basically a television staple. Throughout its many seasons, Grey's Anatomy has become a hit with critics and fans alike — not just for the dramatic storylines and interesting twists and turns, but also because of the show's stellar cast. 

Since the series began in 2005, it has centered around the main character of Dr. Meredith Grey... and she's one of the only original characters to remain on the binge-worthy show throughout its long run. Before long, Grey's Anatomy gained a reputation for killing or writing off main characters during major episodes. Viewers have seen a lot of their favorite doctors come and go — some in Grey's Anatomy's most heartbreaking moments — and the reasons why the cast members themselves have left are always interesting. Whether it's because of a change in direction for the show's plot or behind-the-scenes drama, there's a story behind each actor's departure. Here are the real reasons why these stars left Grey's Anatomy.

Isaiah Washington's scandalous behavior caused him to exit Grey's Anatomy

For the first few seasons of Grey's Anatomy, actor Isaiah Washington played Dr. Preston Burke, a central figure of the show. But in 2006, rumors began to circulate that Washington had caused some trouble behind the scenes. During an argument with co-star Patrick Dempsey, Washington reportedly used a homophobic slur (via People). Not long afterwards, his co-star T.R. Knight revealed to People that he is gay, causing Washington to face even more backlash for his alleged words. 

Washington first denied using the slur, but he eventually released a statement apologizing for his actions (via Today), saying, "I apologize to T.R., my colleagues, the fans of the show and especially the lesbian and gay community for using a word that is unacceptable in any context or circumstance." His apology didn't keep him on the show, though. In June 2007, ABC confirmed that Washington would not return for the next season, as reported by ABC News. Following his dismissal, Washington said in a statement, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

Grey's Anatomy star Kate Walsh opened up a new practice

Kate Walsh was Grey's Anatomy's second major character to leave, but the circumstances of her exit were much less controversial than those of co-star Isaiah Washington. In 2007, ABC announced that they would be producing a Grey's spin-off series called Private Practice, which would star Walsh in a leading role, as reported by The New York Times. Although she was going to keep her Addison Montgomery character from Grey's, Walsh would have to leave the series to star in the new show. 

Walsh later told TV Guide that, when Grey's Anatomy's creator Shonda Rhimes approached her about the new series, "it totally felt like the right thing." In an interview with Parade in 2016, she explained that she knew her time on Grey's was up, admitting, "I felt like my tenure sort of was done at the hospital in terms of — I'd delivered lots of babies, I sort of, you know, tried to save my marriage — it failed. I'd slept with numerous people at the hospital. I was like, 'What else can I do?' other than start like making lunch for everybody." 

Brooke Smith's Grey's Anatomy character lost that special something

When it was announced that Brooke Smith, who played Dr. Erica Hahn, wouldn't be returning to Grey's Anatomy, there were rumors that the network got rid of her character because executives "had issues" with the fact that Hahn was a lesbian. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Smith expressed shock at the fact that they were removing her character from the show. She said that, after the scene where Hahn realizes she's gay, network executives told her it was "one of the best they ever shot on the show." She noted that she was "floored" when they told her they were letting her go, and shared that she was told the show "couldn't write for my character anymore." 

Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes gave her own statement on the issue, saying, "Brooke Smith was obviously not fired for playing a lesbian." She explained that they let Smith go because they "did not find that the magic and chemistry with Brooke's character would sustain in the long run."

Grey's Anatomy actor T.R. Knight may have butted heads with Shonda Rhimes

After Brooke Smith came T.R. Knight, who played the beloved character George O'Malley. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly (via CNN), Knight explained that he made the decision to leave after watching his character pretty much disappear from the show, snagging a lot less screen time. Due to what he called a "breakdown of communication" over time between himself and Shonda Rhimes, he didn't speak up. Instead, he just asked to leave. He explained, "My five-year experience proved to me that I could not trust any answer that was given [about George]," adding, "And with respect, I'm going to leave it at that." 

It wasn't the first time Rhimes and Knight seemed to disagree. Regarding Isaiah Washington's 2006 scandal, Knight hinted that Rhimes may not have wanted him to publicly come out at the time, saying, "I think she was concerned about having my statement come out so close to the [initial] event." Rhimes later released a statement on Knight leaving the show, telling fans, "I think I speak for the entire Grey's Anatomy family when I say we wish T.R. Knight the best in his future endeavors." 

Grey's Anatomy star Katherine Heigl sparked some serious drama

Katherine Heigl's departure from the show was another messy situation. In 2007, she won an Emmy award for her role as Izzie Stevens, but, after the next season of the show, she refused to submit her name for Emmy consideration, saying that she didn't think she was "given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination," as reported by The New York Times. She withdrew her name, she said, "in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization." As could be expected, her comments reportedly angered network executives.

In March 2010, ABC confirmed that Heigl would be leaving Grey's Anatomy. Heigl gave a statement to Entertainment Weekly (via E! News), saying, "I am done," noting, "We just finalized our agreement. 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." Shonda Rhimes later spoke about Heigl's behavior to Oprah Winfrey (via TV Guide), stating, "On some level, it stung and on some level I was not surprised."

Chyler Leigh was ready for her curtain call on Grey's Anatomy

At the end of Season 8 of Grey's Anatomy, fans were shocked when Chyler Leigh's character, Lexie Grey, was killed off the show. Apparently, however, that decision was all on Leigh. In a statement given to E! News, Leigh revealed that she had personally made the decision to make the eighth season her last on the show, although she didn't explain exactly why. She only said, "I am very lucky to have worked with this amazing cast and crew for five seasons. My experience on Grey's Anatomy is something that I will treasure for the rest of my life." 

Shonda Rhimes tweeted about Leigh leaving, saying, "I love Chyler and I love the character of Lexie Grey. She was an important member of my Grey's family. This was not an easy decision. But it was a decision that Chyler and I came to together. We had a lot of thoughtful discussion about it and ultimately we both decided this was the right time for her character's journey to end."

Kim Raver's Grey's Anatomy character, Dr. Altman, went on "vacation"

Another cast member who made the decision to leave the show was Kim Raver, who played Teddy Altman. Raver also left the show during the Season 8 finale, except, unlike Leigh, her character was not killed off. Rather, she was fired from the hospital so she would accept a position at a military hospital (via Bustle). Although Raver didn't speak about leaving the show, Shonda Rhimes tweeted an explanation after the shocking episode aired, saying that Raver's "series option was up" and she was giving her character "a much-needed vacation." She added, "I like to imagine that Teddy is still out there in the Grey's Anatomy universe, running Army Medical Command and building a new life."

As it turns out, that may have been exactly what she was doing while she was gone. Raver returned to the series as Teddy during the Season 14 finale, and Deadline later announced that Raver was upped to a series regular for Season 15.

Grey's Anatomy star Eric Dane jumped ship

Not long after Chyler Leigh and Kim Raver's departure from the show came Eric Dane's. Dane, who played Dr. Mark Sloan, said he himself made the decision to leave the series. He told TVLine that, while he was "extremely grateful" to the cast and crew of Grey's, he was ready to pursue other opportunities. Shonda Rhimes released her own statement, saying that Dane had one of the "most beloved characters," but that they both felt it was "the right time for his storyline to end."

Not too long afterwards, Dane landed a starring role on TNT's The Last Ship, a show produced by Michael Bay. To Entertainment Weekly, he shared that it was a very different role than his one in Grey's, noting, "It was an opportunity for me to go and I was interested in something different." However, Dane noted, "I loved doing Grey's Anatomy. I would have done it until the final episode, but this was something I couldn't pass up."

Sandra Oh needed to move on from Grey's Anatomy

In a bit of an expected move, Sandra Oh became the next actor to leave Grey's Anatomy after playing Dr. Cristina Yang from the very beginning. In August 2013, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Oh would be leaving the show at the end of Season 10, a decision she made on her own. She explained, "Creatively, I really feel like I gave it my all, and I feel ready to let her go." She also said that she had started thinking about leaving a year earlier, and it was something she went to "a lot of therapy" for because she needed to "emotionally let go" on her own. 

Shonda Rhimes seemed just as devastated about the decision, saying, "One of the best days of my life as a writer happened the day Sandra Oh walked in my door to audition and forever changed the course of Grey's Anatomy with her brilliant, nuanced portrayal of Cristina Yang.She said the year was going to be "bittersweet" for everyone, adding that "Grey's Anatomy will once again be forever changed." 

Gaius Charles and Tessa Ferrer had to say goodbye to Grey's Anatomy

In March 2014, Deadline exclusively reported that two more Grey's Anatomy series regulars would be leaving the show: Tessa Ferrer, who played Dr. Leah Murphy, and Gaius Charles, who played Dr. Shane Ross. The two had joined the cast the season before as new interns at the hospital, and they were later promoted during Season 10. Ferrer's Leah was a second-year resident who had dated both Alex Karev (played by Justin Chambers) and Arizona Robbins (played by Jessica Capshaw). Charles' Shane had been involved with both Stephanie Edwards (played by Jerikka Hinton) and Cristina Yang (played by Sandra Oh). 

Unfortunately, it appears that Ferrer and Charles' contracts were not renewed past the tenth season. Though the two, who had joined Grey's Anatomy with actors Camilla Luddington and Jerikka Hinton, thought that season would be their last, it was only actually true for Charles — Ferrer's character reappeared in the show for six episodes in 2016 and 2017. 

Neither actor released any statements about the news of their departures.

Grey's Anatomy actor Patrick Dempsey did his time

Perhaps the most shocking character departure in the show's history was when Patrick Dempsey's Dr. Derek "McDreamy" Shepherd was killed off after ten years on the show. Fans were devastated at how he left the series, leading Shonda Rhimes to eventually speak out about it at the 2015 Summer TCA press tour. As reported by E! News, she said that she stood by her decision to kill Shepherd off: "The decision to have the character die the way that he did was not a difficult one in the sense of what were the options?" 

In an interview with The I Paper (via Entertainment Tonight), Dempsey explained that he felt it was time to move on from Grey's Anatomy, saying, "Look, 10 years is a long time to be on any show. It's very hard to keep the storylines intriguing, especially on a network show with 25 episodes a year. So for me, it was time to go... it's nice to move on and have new challenges."

Grey's Anatomy star Sara Ramirez wanted out

Patrick Dempsey wasn't the only actor who was ready for something new after a decade on the show. In May 2016, Sara Ramirez, who played Dr. Callie Torres, announced she too would be leaving Grey's Anatomy. Ramirez's departure was a surprise, but sources told Variety that it was totally her decision, and there was no bad blood behind the scenes. In a statement, Ramirez explained that she needed "some welcome time off" and praised Shonda Rhimes for creating a wonderful place to work. She also said she was taking time off "for now," suggesting that she may come back to the series in the future. 

But Ramirez's decision to leave was initially so shocking that even Rhimes didn't know the actress wanted to go. Vulture reported that Rhimes said she found out Ramirez wanted off the show "maybe three days before" the general public found out. She revealed that it wasn't planned at all, saying, "I had a different plan going and then Sara came and said, 'I really need to take a break.' I was sort of lucky that we had shot the end of the season with her going to New York." 

Grey's Anatomy's Jerrika Hinton had other plans

Jerrika Hinton, who played Dr. Stephanie Edwards, joined the cast of Grey's Anatomy in 2012, and, in May 2017, she made her final appearance on the medical drama. The fact that she was written off the show wasn't completely shocking, as there had been rumors she was going to leave for about two years before her actual exit — starting when she booked the lead role in another Shonda Rhimes pilot, Toast. The series was never picked up, and Hinton ended up taking a role on an HBO show. Hinton told The Hollywood Reporter that her experience on Toast inspired her to leave Grey's, saying, "When Toast didn't go, I went away and had a spiritual summer in a lot of ways." 

Speaking to Variety, she shared that she'd spoken to Rhimes about her eventual exit a year earlier, and she noted that they had "a very lengthy and gratifying and really splendid conversation about work and creative process." In her own statement regarding Hinton's exit, Rhimes said that she'd wanted to honor Hinton's wishes to do something different and was "proud" of the work they'd done together.

Grey's Anatomy star Martin Henderson knew what the future held

After two seasons as a series regular, Martin Henderson, who played Dr. Nathan Riggs, left the show as well. Deadline spoke with Henderson about his final episode, and Henderson explained that he "only had a short-term contract with the show," saying that he was totally aware it was his final year and he was basically expecting Riggs' story to end. He added, "It was always a short-term thing and I was happy to spend a few years doing the show." 

When asked if he would ever consider returning to Grey's if it was possible, Henderson seemed open to the idea, telling the publication, "I would never close the door. In my mind it's been left open-ended enough." In a statement, Shonda Rhimes revealed, "I loved that we were able to give Riggs a happy ending worthy of his character and talent. As for Martin, this is not an ending for our relationship."

Jason George left Grey's Anatomy to fight fires

Jason George, who played Dr. Ben Warren, left not long after Martin Henderson. In September 2017, The Hollywood Reporter announced that George would be joining the Grey's Anatomy firefighter spin-off, Station 19, as a series regular. George told Entertainment Tonight that he got the news about the spin-off through a phone call, saying, "When Shonda Rhimes calls, you feel like you get called into the principal's office a little bit and you think, maybe I better take that call. We talked and she ran it down for me and had me at hello."

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly in December 2017, George said he couldn't wait to start the show because it really felt like his character was "starting over" and doing something new, noting that he loves that Warren is "excited to pursue new things and go up to new challenges." 

Jessica Capshaw and Sarah Drew were booted off of Grey's Anatomy

Besides Gaius Charles and Tessa Ferrer, another pair of actors memorably left the show at the same time. Jessica Capshaw, who played Dr. Arizona Robbins, and Sarah Drew, who played Dr. April Kepner, exited Grey's Anatomy at the end of the series' 14th season. According to a Deadline report, the decision was made by producers. When rumors surfaced that Capshaw and Drew were being kicked off because of co-star Ellen Pompeo's salary increase, showrunner Krista Vernoff tweeted that it was actually a "creative" decision to have the characters leave the show and that they felt it was time to end their stories.

In a statement on her Instagram page, Capshaw wrote about her character's departure, saying, "I am sad to see her go but I am consoled by the idea that she will live on and on in all of our consciences and imaginations." Drew also released a statement on her own Instagram account. She wrote, "In the wake of being let go, I've been overwhelmed with gratitude, and I've felt profoundly loved. I am so humbled and so thankful."

Grey's Anatomy star Melissa George wanted to go

Melissa George joined the cast of Grey's Anatomy mid-Season 5 as Dr. Sadie Harris, Meredith's once close friend who winds up leaving after it's discovered she cheated to get into the surgical program. According to Entertainment Weekly, George was initially signed on for an 8 to 11 episode arc that could have potentially grown into a series regular position, but a number of factors kept the actress from staying.

George told Entertainment Weekly that leaving Grey's was her own idea, saying, "It was my choice," and that she wanted to "do something else." But according to an ABC source, it wasn't just George's decision. "Melissa's arc came to a natural end," they said. "Everyone at the show adores her. We're genuinely sad to see her go," but added that her character was "difficult to root for" on account of her ambiguous sexuality, a trait that felt poorly timed after Brooke Smith's departure.

Loretta Devine had other projects besides Grey's Anatomy

Loretta Devine won an Emmy for her portrayal of Dr. Webber's wife Adele, who succumbed to Alzheimer's in Season 9. For the most part, it felt as though Adele's arc had reached its finale by the time she left the show, but that doesn't mean her storyline wasn't surprising for those involved. Devine told Entertainment Weekly in 2012 that it took a minute to get used to the idea, saying, "I was like, God, how old am I? I'm not old enough for this! [Laughs.] You feel like, Couldn't they wait another 10 or 20 years before I'm playing a person with Alzheimer's?"

When she left Grey's, though, Devine was in the midst of a number of other projects including The Client List, so she took it all in stride. "The contracts are coming up, they're getting ready to go into the second season of that. So all of that is in the air," she said. She later told Wetpaint (whose site is no longer available) that she loved her time on Grey's, saying, "I'm just so proud of the character, and I'm so happy to be on a show that's a hit. It's so hard to stay current in this business or to stay in the business, period."

Jeffrey Dean Morgan begged not to be killed off of Grey's Anatomy

Jeffrey Dean Morgan's character, heart transplant-needing patient-turned-fiancé Denny Duquette, was always going to die. Morgan told the Los Angeles Times in 2006 that he knew about his character's eventual fate before ever going in to audition, saying, "It has been the year for me to play the dead and dying." But that didn't mean he — and everyone else on the cast — didn't fight to keep him on when the time came.

"Please, please, just let me live," he had begged Shonda Rhimes, but she wouldn't budge, in spite of Morgan having come up with several ways to keep his character around. When it came time to shoot his final scene — which Patrick Dempsey nearly glossed over at the table reading seeing as Denny's death was all of three lines — Morgan said he was heartbroken. "It was a grim day, let me tell you," he said, adding, "A dark, grim day. I'm still not over it. It broke my heart to leave that show."

Grey's Anatomy's Jeff Perry went on to follow his TV political career

Thatcher Grey, father to both Meredith and Lexie, had always been a character that was in and out of the series. In fact, between 2006 and 2011, actor Jeff Perry only appeared on Grey's Anatomy 14 times. So when Perry was cast as Cyrus Beene in Shonda Rhimes' new ABC series Scandal, having Thatcher take an extended hiatus never really felt out of the ordinary.

Still, for Perry, coming back for one final episode in 2019 felt like his character was finally getting closure. He told People, "Actors are weird creatures. Unlike more sane humans, we seem to enjoy going into the territory that is shaky and most vulnerable. ...So, I was really excited by the thought to get to the unresolved." The actor was also excited to step back into the Shondaland world. He said the experience was "great and deeply comfortably [sic]."

Scott Foley was always "just a guest" on Grey's Anatomy

Scott Foley had only a brief guest run that started during Grey's Anatomy's seventh season. He played Henry Burton, a patient with Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome who didn't have the insurance necessary to receive treatment. His character died after 15 episodes on the show, but not before he married Teddy and subsequently got her to fall in love with him. Like Perry, Foley went on to co-star in Scandal, a role he told Reddit was more satisfying to film.

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Foley was asked about his stint on Grey's, where he revealed that — much like Denny Duquette — Henry was never meant to make it beyond his 15-episode arc. In terms of acting, he said he found playing a guest role to be harder than a series regular. "I loved my time on Grey's but I was just a guest there, and it makes things a bit more difficult when you're not a permanent fixture on a television show," he said.

Justin Chambers left Grey's Anatomy to diversify his acting career

Justin Chambers sent a shockwave through the Grey's Anatomy fandom on Jan. 10, 2020, when he announced his decision to leave the hit medical drama. The actor, who portrayed fa-favorite character Dr. Alex Karev, told Deadline, "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 continued, revealing that he'd wanted to "diversify" his acting career for a while. He noted, "And, as I turn 50 and am blessed with my remarkable, supportive wife and five wonderful children, now is that time."

However, according to insider sources who spoke to Page Six, Chambers had been receiving treatment for ongoing mental health issues before announcing his departure from Grey's Anatomy. "Justin was at [mental health treatment center] Privé-Swiss being treated for stress, depression and life-coaching," a source told Page Six. Added the anonymous insider, "There is a lot going on with [Grey's Anatomy] behind-the-scenes right now."

Whatever the case may be, it's safe to say Chambers (and Alex Karev) will be sorely missed by fans.