The untold truth of Grey's Anatomy

Medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy have long been a TV staple. With all of General Hospital and ER's patients — plus the many diagnoses — jaded viewers could be forgiven for assuming they'd seen it all by the time ABC debuted Grey's Anatomy. However, the series, which premiered in 2005, put a fresh and innovative spin on the traditional medical drama, shifting the focus from medical emergencies to the doctors' complicated romantic relationships and all that entailed.

In a Masterclass lesson, Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes broke down the pilot episode and explained the guiding principle that allowed her to make the show so iconoclastic. "If you've seen it before, why would you do it again?" she asked. While admitting that "there's almost nothing new under the sun," Rhimes contended that there are "different ways of thinking of things that are new." She continued, saying, "Your goal isn't to copy somebody that you admire. Your goal is to be the thing that other people would admire themselves."

Grey's Anatomy continued to follow that philosophy, leading to the show remaining one TV's biggest hits for well over a decade. For diehard fans who think they know all there is to know about the show, read on to explore the untold truth of Grey's Anatomy.

Series creator Shonda Rhimes was "obsessed" with watching surgeries on TV before writing the Grey's Anatomy pilot

Grey's Anatomy may never have seen the light of day had its creator Shonda Rhimes not become fixated on watching television documentary series chronicling all manner of surgical procedures. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey for O Magazine, Rhimes revealed that she wrote the Grey's pilot "on a whim" after inundating herself with TV surgery. "I was obsessed with the surgery channels," Rhimes recalled. "My sisters and I would call each other up and talk about operations we'd seen on the Discovery Channel." 

Watching all those operations led Rhimes to have an epiphany about the doctors she'd been watching. Her observation: Even though the surgeons held a person's life in their trained hands, surgery is still a job. "There's something fascinating about the medical world — you see things you'd never imagine, like the fact that doctors talk about their boyfriends or their day while they're cutting somebody open," she told Winfrey.

When Rhimes was subsequently approached by ABC to write a pilot, she told Winfrey, she'd become so immersed in that world that setting her new show in an operating room seemed "natural."

A homophobic slur against a cast member led to a Grey's Anatomy star's firing

In 2007, when Grey's Anatomy was busy taking television by storm, the show became embroiled in controversy. One cast member used an ugly, homophobic slur to describe a co-star. As Entertainment Weekly reported, Patrick Dempsey, who played Dr. Derek "McDreamy" Shepherd, had an on-set altercation with Isaiah Washington (Dr. Preston Burke), who referred to T.R. Knight (Dr. George O'Malley) using a homophobic slur. Washington only made things worse when he later gave an on-camera interview denying he used the word — while using the word. "No, I did not call T.R. a f*****. Never happened. Never happened," he said.

Subsequently, Grey's star Katherine Heigl addressed the situation, declaring that Washington "needs to just not speak in public." She continued, telling Access Hollywood, "That did just not need to be said. I'm not OK with it."

Knight, who came out as gay after the incident, refuted Washington's denial on The Ellen Degeneres Show (via E!). "Everyone heard it," he said. "... He denied that he said it. I don't know, really, what to say about that," he continued. Washington was eventually fired, and issued a statement: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

The surprising reason Grey's Anatomy's Ellen Pompeo isn't a fan of TV medical dramas

Ellen Pompeo has played Dr. Meredith Grey since the debut of Grey's Anatomy in 2005, starring in more than 300 episodes of television. Yet after treating all those provocative patients and undertaking a multitude of miraculous medical procedures, the actress admitted she's actually not really a fan of TV medical dramas.

Appearing on a 2019 episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Pompeo explained the simple — and surprising — reason why. "Medical shows make me too anxious," she admitted. When asked by host Jimmy Kimmel how many of Grey's Anatomy's 300-plus episodes she's actually seen, she estimated she's watched "60 percent maybe," but had a different reason for why she didn't want to watch her medical drama. "It's too much of me," she explained. "Same reason my husband says, 'I can't watch, it's too much. I get you all day.'"

Speaking of "too much," that's also Pompeo's attitude when it comes to all the many milestones the show has celebrated over the years. "Enough with the celebrations now," she jokingly complained to Kimmel. "At this point, every episode is a milestone and a celebration ... I am the party pooper!"

Kevin McKidd started giving himself medical diagnoses thanks to Grey's Anatomy

Can playing a doctor on television make an actor believe that he or she possesses a certain degree of medical knowledge? That was apparently the case with Grey's Anatomy star Kevin McKidd, who began playing Dr. Owen Hunt on the show in 2008. In a cast interview with Variety to commemorate the show's 300th episode, McKidd admitted that he "definitely self-diagnosed myself with a couple things."

However, McKidd is savvy enough to realize that the small modicum of medical information he's soaked in over the years isn't exactly the equivalent of a medical degree. As he joked, "I wouldn't trust my medical opinion on anything. If you have anything that's going on, I wouldn't trust me."

Caterina Scorsone, who played Dr. Amelia Shepherd until her exit from the show in 2019, told Variety that before joining the cast in Grey's Anatomy's 11th season, watching the show on television actually inspired her to want to become a doctor herself. "I was into it enough that when I finished watching the first season I thought I wanted to go to med school," she revealed.

Grey's Anatomy's Dr. Bailey is based on Shonda Rimes' mother

As of this writing, Chandra Wilson has received four Emmy nominations for her portrayal of Dr. Miranda Bailey, a character that has been part of the show since the first episode. Bailey is known for being tough and unsentimental — so much so that in the show's early years the other doctors nicknamed her "the Nazi." 

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey for O Magazine, Winfrey asked series creator Shonda Rhimes to confirm something she'd heard: Was Bailey really was based on Rhimes' own mother? "A little bit. She's very no-nonsense," revealed Rhimes. "Dr. Bailey says stuff like 'These people are nasty — all they think about is sex while we're trying to save lives here.' My mother is definitely that kind of realist."

Rhimes shared another big revelation about the character. When she wrote the script, she pictured Bailey "as a tiny blonde with curls," explaining she thought viewers would be surprised to see "this sweet-looking person open her mouth and say tough things." When Wilson auditioned for the role, however, Rhimes tossed that idea out the window. As soon as WIlson "opened her mouth and said those same things," she knew she'd found her Miranda.

Jesse Williams was a schoolteacher when he was cast in Grey's Anatomy

Jesse Williams is well known to fans of Grey's Anatomy for portraying Dr. Jackson Avery, first appearing as a surgical resident in 2009 before joining the cast full-time the following year. Prior to landing the role, Williams' acting career hadn't exactly been flourishing. In fact, in a 2010 appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show he explained that before being cast in Grey's, he'd been working as a schoolteacher.

Revealing that he taught mainly high school, he admitted "it was fun." He told host Ellen DeGeneres that he also taught middle school and spent six months teaching kindergarten students. That experience, however, is not one he'd wish to repeat. "It's insane," Williams said of teaching kindergarteners. "I'm not going back there. I love the kids, but it's like being caught in a tornado, it's like Whac-a-Mole."

Williams described teaching kindergarten as being akin to putting out constant fires only to have more pop up. "As soon as you'd calm something else down, there's something else ablaze." That, however, wasn't the worst thing about kids that age. "They're liars," he said jokingly. "They just lie all the time for fun — for no reason."

Patrick Dempsey was "terrified" of Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rimes

Patrick Dempsey, who played Derek "McDreamy" Shepherd from 2005 until his character was  — spoiler!killed off in 2015, felt wildly intimidated by Grey's Anatomy Shonda Rhimes when they first met. As Dempsey recalled during a 2009 Q&A panel at the Paley Center for Media, he entered the meeting and exchanged pleasantries with the pilot's director Peter Horton, with whom he had worked before, and then saw Rhimes. "...Shonda Rhimes looks at me," he detailed. "No expression. Just looks at me. The entire meeting, just looking at me. No expression, no warmth, nothing."

After what he thought to be a disastrous meeting, Dempsey called his agent and explained, "It's not gonna work at all. Shonda Rhimes hates me!' ... I was completely terrified of her. I was like, 'Oh my god, she's scary.'"

What Dempsey was assuming, however, wasn't close to the truth. As Rhimes explained, her expression was actually due to the fact that she was "trying to figure out what dialogue [she] could write for him to say." She admitted at the panel: "Honestly, the entire time that he was in the room, I was like, 'Oh my god, he's so dreamy.'"

Why Katherine Heigl wishes she would have "shut up" about her Grey's Anatomy complaints

Arguably Grey's Anatomy's biggest breakout star in the show's early years was Katherine Heigl. Her Grey's fame leading to big-screen roles in 2007's Knocked Up and the 2008 rom-com 27 Dresses. In the midst of all this success, Heigl curiously decided to take herself out of contention for the 2008 Emmys. It was her explanation why, however, that created controversy. "I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination," she said in a statement.

Her words blew up and the show's writers and were producers reportedly less than thrilled about her apparent diss. Unsurprisingly, Katherine Heigl left Grey's Anatomy after Season 6. In a 2016 interview with Vanity Fair, Heigl admitted she was "really embarrassed" by the firestorm that ensued and wished she had just kept her mouth shut. "I shouldn't have said anything publicly," she explained. "But at the time, I didn't think anyone would notice... I just quietly didn't submit and then it became a story, and I felt I was obligated to make my statement, and [I should have just said], 'Shut up, Katie.'"

Sandra Oh originally auditioned to play a different character on Grey's Anatomy

Sandra Oh portrayed fan favorite Dr. Cristina Yang until exiting Grey's Anatomy in 2014. While fans of the show would likely find it difficult to imagine anyone else in that role, Oh revealed that when she first auditioned for the show, she had her eye on playing another character. "I first auditioned for the part of Miranda Bailey," Oh said in a 2009 Q&A hosted by the Paley Center for Media. "And thank God I did not get that part." 

According to Oh, Bailey's no-nonsense personality appealed to her, as at the time she was "practicing asking for what I wanted in my life." However, after reading the script she found herself connecting more with the Cristina. What most appealed to her about Cristina, she explained, is that the same character traits that make her a great surgeon wind up hampering her personal relationships.

"I think her ability to be focused and not be emotionally engaged might give her an edge on the difficulties [of being] a surgeon," she said, "but when it comes to connecting with people... it lends itself to an interesting playing of opposites."

Kate Walsh was only supposed to be a guest star on Grey's Anatomy

In television, actors who are brought in as guest stars will occasionally wind up making such a huge impression that they're invited onto the show full-time. Such was the case with Kate Walsh, who was cast in the juicy role of Derek Shepherd's ex-wife midway through the show's first season.

In a panel discussion hosted by the Paley Center for Media, Walsh divulged that when she was first cast, it was "super top secret." Initially, Walsh said, she was told "it would just be a few episodes" and that'd she'd come in as a "badass from New York." Dr. Addison Montgomery quickly resonated with viewers, and those few episodes turned into a gig as a Grey's Anatomy series regular.

Walsh wound up leaving the show a few years later, in 2007 — but only because she was tapped to star in Grey's Anatomy's first spinoff, Private Practice. The show followed Addison as she moved from Washington to California, where she reconnects with some med school classmates to work at a posh wellness clinic. The show was a hit and enjoyed a six-season run, ending in 2013.

The clever way Grey's Anatomy tried to hide Ellen Pompeo's pregnancy

Portraying Seattle surgeon Dr. Meredith Grey, Ellen Pompeo has been the beating heart of Grey's Anatomy since the series' debut. When Pompeo became pregnant during the show's sixth season in 2009, this left the show's writers with a dilemma: Come up with a storyline in which Meredith likewise becomes pregnant or attempt to conceal the pregnancy from viewers. Given that a pregnant Meredith would have taken the show in a very different direction than it was going at the time, producers opted for the latter.

To hide Pompeo's pregnancy, explained the New York Post, Pompeo was filmed mainly from the neck up, or sitting behind a desk. As Pompeo's pregnancy advanced and the due date grew imminent, the writers concocted a storyline in which Meredith donated part of her liver to her estranged father. This cleverly provided an excuse for Meredith to be out of the action while she recovered from surgery, meaning Pompeo wouldn't be required on screen for several episodes. Meredith's absence from the storyline also allowed Pompeo to have a brief maternity leave after she and her husband Chris Ivery welcomed daughter Stella Luna.

Ellen Pompeo revealed her favorite episode of Grey's Anatomy

As of January 2020, Grey's Anatomy had produced nearly 340 episodes, many of which are full of heartbreaking moments. Out of all those, could it be possible that star Ellen Pompeo would be able to single out just one as her favorite? That's what Good Morning America tried to determine by asking the show's cast to pick a favorite episode. For Pompeo, the one that sprang to mind was a Season 2 episode titled "It's the End of the World", which was seen by 38.1 million viewers.

Pompeo pointed to her most memorable part of the episode, in which a bomb exploded and her character was blown backwards by the blast. As Pompeo told GMA, the woman that viewers saw flying through the air wasn't actually her, but her stunt double. "They attached ... like a vest to her and then they would attach this cable to the vest and they'd pull her back as this bomb explodes," she explained.

The stunt didn't go as planned, however. The stuntwoman hit her head on the floor and was taken away in an ambulance after suffering a concussion. Pompeo admitted she was a little freaked out after that, especially when the director then told her, "Okay, Pompeo, you're up."

The surprising way McDreamy got his iconic nickname on Grey's Anatomy

When Grey's Anatomy first hit the air, viewers immediately became enamoured of the show's hunky doctor duo, Derek Shepherd, played by Patrick Dempsey, and Mark Sloane, played by Eric Dane. Dubbed "McDreamy" and "McSteamy," the doctors' sexy — and memorable — nicknames only contributed to the show's burgeoning popularity. But, where did those now-iconic nicknames originate?

Series creator Shonda Rhimes revealed in an interview with O Magazine that while shooting the series pilot she was struck by the fact that Dempsey "was seriously the most adorable man we'd ever seen on camera." While watching Dempsey on the monitor, she would think, "Look at his dreamy eyes." She and her fellow producers started referring to Dempsey as McDreamy and it stuck. The nickname made its way into the scripts and, eventually, television history. 

During the interview, Rhimes also explained the true meaning of McDreamy. "In the first eight episodes, he seems like a perfect guy who's into Meredith — and the audience falls in love. But then it is revealed that he has a huge flaw: he has a wife," she said. "Isn't that the way if often happens in life? You get hooked before you discover the truth?"

The inspiring reason why Ellen Pompeo revealed her Grey's Anatomy salary

In 2019, Ellen Pompeo made TV history when she inked a $20-million deal spanning two seasons, effectively making her the highest-paid woman on television. Whenever these big-bucks deals are made, it's customary for the stars to deftly sidestep any discussion of how much they're actually paid. However, Pompeo broke from that tradition and shared how much money she was really worth. She even spoke with The Hollywood Reporter and confirmed details of the deal, which contained a signing bonus and backend equity points that could bring her an additional $7 million.

The reason she got candid about her salary was both surprising and inspiring. In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Pompeo said she did it as a way to empower other women to demand salary parity with their male counterparts. "As women, you know, it's not only about what's done to us or what's not given to us. It's what don't we ask for," she explained, encouraging women to ask for what they feel they deserve. "We have to own part of it. And sometimes we're too shy; we're too afraid to be seen as difficult to really speak our mind."