Patrick Dempsey’s Grey’s Anatomy character Derek Shepherd was nicknamed McDreamy, which is ironic, because if the stories about his conduct on set are anything to go by, he was more of a… McNightmare.
(Sorry. That was bad.)
Dempsey’s very dramatic departure in season 11 of the much-loved series came as a shock to many, even after rumours that he was about to be fired, swirled amid allegations of ‘diva behaviour’.
A new book has documented the HR complaints and fraught on-set atmosphere that led to McDreamy’s on-screen death, with producers, cast and Dempsey himself recalling the mess going behind-the-scenes.
“He had this hold on the set where he knew he could stop production and scare people. The network and studio came down, and we had sessions with them. I think he was just done with the show,” James D. Parriott said in the book, How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy.
Watch: Meredith and Derek reuinted in Grey’s Anatomy season 17. Post continues below video.
Video via ABC.
It was 2015 at the time, and Grey’s Anatomy had been on screen for 10 years. It was still one of the most popular shows in the world, giving us medical miracles, drama and lots of trauma (mostly due to creator Shonda Rhimes killing off our favourite characters).
But for those 10 years, its cast had been turning up to work in a “toxic” environment, according to Ellen Pompeo.
In a 2019 interview with Empire’s Taraji P. Henson for Variety, Pompeo – a.k.a Dr Meredith Grey – said there were times when she considered leaving the series.
“The first 10 years we had serious culture issues, very bad behaviour, really toxic work environment,” she explained.
But the 49-year-old mother-of-three said that she stuck around in order to provide for her family.
After season 10 there were major changes behind and in front of the camera (we miss you, Sandra Oh) which she said helped lead to a change.
“After season 10, we had some big shifts in front of the camera, behind the camera. It became my goal to have an experience there that I could be happy and proud about, because we had so much turmoil for 10 years. My mission became, this can’t be fantastic to the public and a disaster behind the scenes.
“Shonda Rhimes and I decided to rewrite the ending of this story. That’s what’s kept me. Patrick Dempsey left the show in Season 11, and the studio and network believed the show could not go on without the male lead. So I had a mission to prove that it could. I was on a double mission.”
Drama from the Grey’s Anatomy set has regularly made the news. Here’s a look back at what’s gone down on set since the show began in 2005.
2006: Isaiah Washington’s homophobic slur.
In October 2006, Isaiah Washington (he played Dr Preston Burke) allegedly yelled a homophobic slur about T.R. Knight (Dr George O’Malley) at Dempsey.
Knight came out of the closet in a People magazine story published 10 days after the incident.
Washington apologised on October 26, but in January the issue resurfaced when he repeated the word, saying “I did not call T.R. a f*****. Never happened,” at the 2007 Golden Globes.
“I apologise 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,” Washington said in a statement after the awards show. “By repeating the word Monday night, I marred what should have been a perfect night for everyone who works on Grey’s Anatomy. I can neither defend nor explain my behaviour. I can also no longer deny to myself that there are issues I obviously need to examine within my own soul, and I’ve asked for help.”
In June 2007, ABC announced it would not be renewing Washington’s contract and he would be dropped from the show.
In a statement reacting to his axing, Washington said he was “mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”.
A month later in July, Washington appeared on Larry King Live on CNN and said he never used the “F Word” in reference to Knight, but rather told Dempsey to stop treating him like a “F-word” during an argument “provoked” by Dempsey, who, he felt, was treating him like a “B-word”, a “P-word”, and the “F-word”, which Washington said he meant to mean “somebody who is being weak”.
Washington’s drama got him fired – and led to one of the most heartbreaking TV moments we can remember. Dr Christina Yang sobbing after Burke left her on their wedding day? We’ll probably never get over that.
2008: Katherine Heigl withdraws her Emmy nomination.
In 2008, Katherine Heigl (Dr Izzie Stevens) pulled her name from Emmy contention despite winning an Emmy the season before.
In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Heigl explained her decision by throwing some major shade at the show’s writers.
“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 organisation, I withdrew my name from contention,” she said.
That’s… rough. The show’s writers and producers were reportedly (and understandably)p**sed but Rhimes said the reason Heigl’s character was given less material than previous seasons was because she had requested a lighter schedule.
Though Izzie remained a core part of the show for season six, this Emmy debacle seemed to be the beginning of the end for Heigl’s character.
2009: T.R. Knight and Shonda Rhimes’ breakdown of communication.
T.R. announced he was leaving the show, after being frustrated by the lack of screen time his character George was receiving.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly he said he did not discuss this frustration, which saw George appear in just 48 minutes in the first nine episodes of season five, with Rhimes due to a “breakdown of communication”. Instead, he just decided to leave.
“My five-year experience proved to me that I could not trust any answer that was given [about George],” he explained. “And with respect, I’m going to leave it at that.”
2009: Katherine Heigl shades producers.
Heigl complained about long filming days on The Late Show With David Letterman (even though, according to BuddyTV, she caused the long days because producers were trying to accommodate her media tour for rom-com The Ugly Truth).
“Our first day back was Wednesday, and it was – I’m going to keep saying this because I hope it embarrasses them – a 17-hour day, which I think is cruel and mean.”
When Letterman asked how much longer she’d be on the show she replied: “Yeah, that’s what I keep wondering”.
2010: Katherine Heigl leaves.
Yeah, so Heigl is definitely a running theme here.
Rumours that the actress would leave Grey’s Anatomy persisted throughout season six, partly because Heigl had not been shy about wanting to focus on her movie career.
On March 11, Heigl reportedly did not show up for work… So she and Rhimes reached an agreement to immediately release her from her contract.
Uh, bye, Dr Izzie.
More than two years later in 2012, Rhimes was still not stoked with how things went down with Heigl.
“On some level, it stung,” she told TV Guide of Heigl’s exit, “and on some level I was not surprised. When people show you who they are, believe them.”
In 2013, Pompeo told the New York Post she understood why Heigl wanted to leave, but the scandal surrounding her exit took its toll on the cast.
“Hurt feelings, combined with instant success and huge paychecks started things spinning out of control,” she said.
“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 [Heigl’s] problem is that she should not have renewed her contract. She re-upped, took a big raise and then tried to get off the show.”
Then Pompeo couldn’t resist a dig at her former co-star: “And then her movie career did not take off.”
2012: Eric ‘piece of meat’ Dane.
Eric Dane (Dr Mark Sloan) was written out of the show in 2012, and honestly I still can’t think about it without getting really sad.
In an interview with French news outlet Programme TV, Dane said – according to an English translation – that on Grey’s he was “just a piece of meat”.
2015: ‘Diva’ McDreamy.
In 2015 rumours were flying that Dempsey, a.k.a Dr Derek ‘McDreamy’ Shepherd was about to be fired.
His character was shipped off to D.C for much of season 11 and ultimately uh… *spoiler alert* didn’t make it beyond that season, despite being contracted for season 12.
On April 20, 2015 (just three days before the season 11 episode where Derek died was aired) a show source told Page Six it was down to ‘diva’ behaviour from the show lead.
“Patrick has been acting like a diva and has clashed with Shonda,” they said. “She suspended him for a while, and the word on set is that he isn’t coming back full time.”
“Given all the past problems with Katherine Heigl and Isaiah Washington, there is little tolerance on the show for troublesome talent.”
In September 2021, an unauthorised book by author Lynette Rice, How To Save A Life: The Inside Story Of Grey’s Anatomy, published further details about Dempsey’s departure.
In an excerpt published by the Hollywood Reporter, the book claimed he was “terrorising the set” before being written off the series.
“There were HR issues. It wasn’t sexual in any way. He sort of was terrorising the set. Some cast members had all sorts of PTSD with him,” executive producer James D. Parriott, who was brought back to the series to oversee Dempsey’s exit, recalled.
“He had this hold on the set where he knew he could stop production and scare people. The network and studio came down, and we had sessions with them. I think he was just done with the show. He didn’t like the inconvenience of coming in every day and working. He and Shonda were at each other’s throats.”
Producer Jeannine Renshaw recalled how Pompeo would get frustrated with her co-star.
“She would get angry that he wasn’t working as much. She was very big on having things be fair. She just didn’t like that Patrick would complain that ‘I’m here too late’ or ‘I’ve been here too long’ when she had twice as many scenes in the episode as he did,” Renshaw said.
“When I brought it up to Patrick, I would say, ‘Look around you. These people have been here since 6.30am’. He would go, ‘Oh, yeah.’ He would get it. It’s just that actors tend to see things from their own perspective.”
An unnamed cast member remembered how many of the show’s cast would “go running to Shonda” and say ‘hey, Patrick’s doing this. Patrick’s late for work. He’s a nightmare.’
“He was just shut out in the cold. His behavior wasn’t the greatest, but he had nowhere to go. He was so miserable. He had no one to talk to. When Sandra [Oh] left [in 2013], I remember him telling me, ‘I should’ve left then, but I stayed on because they showed me all this money. They just were dumping money on me’,” they said.
Dempsey himself is quoted in the book talking about this period.
“It’s ten months, fifteen hours a day,” he said.
“You never know your schedule, so your kid asks you, ‘What are you doing on Monday?’ And you go, ‘I don’t know,’ because I don’t know my schedule. Doing that for eleven years is challenging. But you have to be grateful, because you’re well compensated, so you can’t really complain because you don’t really have a right,” he said.
He said he would it hard to say no to his huge salary, and he worried about a career after McDreamy.
“It [was] hard to say no to that kind of money. How do you say no to that? It’s remarkable to be a working actor, and then on top of that to be on a show that’s visible. And then on top of that to be on a phenomenal show that’s known around the world, and play a character who is beloved around the world,” he said.
“It’s very heady. It [was] a lot to process, and not wanting to let that go, because you never know whether you will work again and have success again.”
Parriott said production had three different possible scenarios for Derek, depending on what happened with Dempsey.
One option was to keep the character in Washington D.C., separated from the rest of the cast. Another was to return him to Seattle and figure out what Derek and Meredith’s relationship would look like. The last option was to kill off the character.
In the end, that was the only viable option.
“I think Shonda finally witnessed [the complaining] herself, and that was the final straw. Shonda had to say to the network, ‘If he doesn’t go, I go.'”
Despite the on-set controversies, Grey’s Anatomy has endured as the longest-running scripted primetime show on US network ABC and the longest running American primetime medical series.
Season 18 is just around the corner, so the (hopefully just on-screen) drama at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital is set to continue for some time yet.
This article was originally published on June 6, 2019 and has been updated.
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