Fans of Grey’s Anatomy have seen several instances of backstage controversy almost as powerful as the show’s well-known onscreen action. Just last month, they had to brace for more, as the ABC medical drama got some bad press when one of the series’ writers came under fire for alleged dishonesty.
Of course, Grey’s has had far bigger scandals in its 18-season history. Isaiah Washington (Preston Burke) was fired after an on-set altercation, Katherine Heigl (Izzie Stevens) had a very public falling out with Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes, and Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey (Derek Shepherd) famously caused “HR issues,” in the words of one former producer. Ellen Pompeo (Meredith Grey) even claimed the work environment at Grey’s used to be “really toxic.”
Those moments lead our “greatest hits” to the rep of a show with its share of unwanted headlines.
Isaiah Washington drops the F-word
Washington was fired from Grey’s Anatomy at the end of the third season following a much-reported argument with Patrick Dempsey, during which Washington reportedly used a homophobic slur in reference to costar T.R. Knight (George O’Malley), who was not publicly out as gay at the time. In a subsequent interview with Larry King, Washington admitted that he used the F-word but denied using it to refer to Knight.
“I said several bad words [to Dempsey],” Washington claimed then (via People). “There’s no way you’re going to treat me like the B-word, the P-word or the F-word.”
T.R. Knight and Katherine Heigl air their grievances
When Knight left the show at the end of Season 5, he told Entertainment Weekly that he had experienced a “breakdown in communication” with Rhimes and that he was surprised when George “just kind of disappeared” from the plot earlier in the season.
“My five-year experience proved to me that I could not trust any answer that was given [about George],” he added. ”And with respect, I’m going to leave it at that.”
Then, midway through the following season, Heigl made her own awkward exit from the series, after publicly complaining about long hours on the set and withdrawing her name from Emmy contention. (In a statement about the latter, Heigl said she “did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination.”)
Rhimes later hinted at her frustration with the actress in a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, saying that Scandal’s cast worked well together because “there are no Heigls in this situation.” (Knight has since returned to Grey’s Anatomy as a guest star; Heigl has not.)
Patrick Dempsey causes “HR issues”
In the 2021 book How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy, author Lynette Rice described how original Grey’s executive producer James D. Parriott had to come back to the production in Season 11 — after nearly a decade away — to serve as a “veritable Dempsey whisperer” amid reported diva-like behavior from the actor.
“Shonda needed an OG to come in as sort of a showrunner for fourteen episodes,” Parriott said in the book (via The Hollywood Reporter). “There were HR issues. It wasn’t sexual in any way. He sort of was terrorizing the set. Some cast members had all sorts of PTSD with him. 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 added, “A lot of the complaining … I think Shonda finally witnessed it herself, and that was the final straw. Shonda had to say to the network, ‘If he doesn’t go, I go.’ Nobody wanted him to leave, because he was the show. Him and Ellen. Patrick is a sweetheart. It messes you up, this business.”
Ellen Pompeo details her contract negotiations
In Pompeo’s wide-ranging 2018 interview with The Hollywood Reporter — conducted after she signed a contract worth more than $20 million per year — she revealed that studio bosses used Dempsey as “leverage” in their contract negotiations with her. She claimed they told her they didn’t need her since they had him. She also said that Dempsey was “never interested” in negotiating together with her.
“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,” she added. “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 talks about the “toxic” work environment
In that same 2018 interview, Pompeo also discussed the past “tumult” on the set of the ABC hit. “I don’t think it’s a secret that we had a real problem at Grey’s for a long time,” she said. “On the outside, we were a massive success, but there was all of this tumult on the inside: It was a lot of rivalry, a lot of competition. It starts with actors behaving badly, and then producers enabling them to behave badly. And, by the way, I’m guilty of it, too. I saw squeaky wheels getting all the f—king grease, so I was like, ‘OK, that’s how you do it,’ and I behaved badly as well. I mimicked what I saw.”
The actress talked more about the behind-the-scenes chaos at Grey’s in a Variety conversation the following year. “The first 10 years we had serious culture issues, very bad behavior, really toxic work environment,” she told the publication.
Pompeo goes “at it” with Denzel Washington
The actress made headlines — and stoked controversy — last October when she talked on her podcast about fighting on set with Denzel Washington as he directed the Season 12 episode “The Sound of Silence.” As she recalled, she ad-libbed lines while filming that episode to get a different performance out of her scene partner.
“That wasn’t in the dialogue. And Denzel went ham on my ass,” Pompeo said on the podcast. “[Denzel] was like, ‘I’m the director. Don’t you tell him what to do.’ I was like, ‘Listen, motherf—ker, this is my show. This is my set. Who are you telling? Like, you barely know where the bathroom is!’”
She added: “I have the utmost respect for him as an actor, as a director, as everything, but we went at it one day.”
This January, Washington told Variety he didn’t remember that interaction on the Grey’s set. “But it’s all good,” he added with a smile.
Elisabeth Finch is placed on administrative leave after coming under scrutiny
Last month, Deadline reported that Grey’s Anatomy consulting producer and writer Elisabeth Finch had been put on administrative leave amid allegations that she misrepresented details about her medical and personal history. According to the site, Finch has said that she was diagnosed with bone cancer, that she lost a kidney and part of a leg as part of a misdiagnosis, and that she suffered verbal and sexual abuse by a male director during her time on The Vampire Diaries. The Hollywood Reporter later wrote that Disney’s human resources and legal departments had launched an internal investigation of the claims.
At the end of March, Finch announced a personal leave of absence from the show. “Grey’s Anatomy is one big-hearted, brilliant family,” she said in part, per Deadline. “As hard as it is to take some time away right now, I know it is more important that I focus on my own family and my health. I’m immensely grateful to Disney, ABC and Shondaland for allowing me to do so and for supporting me through this very difficult time.”