'Grey's Anatomy': The Biggest Cast Exits
From T.R. Knight and Katherine Heigl to Sara Ramirez and Patrick Dempsey, ET chronicles the history of Grey's' biggest and most dramatic cast exits over the past 17 seasons. Here's a look back at all the stars who have passed through the halls of Grey Sloan Memorial.
Jesse Williams (Dr. Jackson Avery)
Williams' departure was announced ahead of Sarah Drew's return on the May 6, 2021 episode in season 17, which reunited Jackson and April and provided closure for fans and for that relationship. The 40-year-old actor's final Grey's episode aired May 20. â€œI will forever be grateful for the boundless opportunities provided me by Shonda, the network, studio, fellow cast mates, our incredible crew, Krista [Vernoff], Ellen [Pompeo] and Debbie [Allen]. As an actor, director and person, I have been obscenely lucky to learn so much from so many and I thank our beautiful fans, who breathe so much energy and appreciation into our shared worlds," Williams said in a statement to ET. "The experience and endurance born of creating nearly 300 hours of leading global television is a gift Iâ€™ll carry always. I am immensely proud of our work, our impact and to be moving forward with so many tools, opportunities, allies and dear friends.â€
Giacomo Gianniotti (Dr. Andrew DeLuca)
Gianniotti saw his beloved character, DeLuca, receive a hero's sendoff when the doctor -- who had gotten his bipolar disorder under control at the start of season 17 -- died in the March 11, 2021 episode after getting stabbed following a wild goose chase of a sex trafficker that led him (and his sister Carina) all over Seattle. There were hints that the Grey Sloan attending was going to recover from his injuries after successfully undergoing emergency surgery, but unexpected complications led him to bleed out and die on the operating table. Gianniotti also appeared on the beach alongside Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey to say goodbye.
Following his character's death, Gianniotti spoke to ET about learning DeLuca wouldn't survive past season 17. "[Showrunner] Krista [Vernoff] and [executive producer] Debbie [Allen] were more emotional than I was, because I think for me it was more shock. I just felt a little taken aback... They had probably spent more time with this idea and with this news, so they were already beyond the shock and more into the mourning of a great friend having to leave the show, you know? But it was beautiful and we had a great conversation and we reminisced about all these years working together, how beautiful it's been and how we get to give DeLuca a send-off that is worthy of his character and all that he's given to the show, so I feel very happy about the experience."
Justin Chambers (Dr. Alex Karev)
Chambers announced in mid-January 2020 that he would be leaving Grey's Anatomy after 15 years on the medical drama, ET confirmed. Adding to the abrupt announcement is the news that Chambers' last episode already aired on Nov. 14, 2019. "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 said in a statement to ET. "For some time now, however, I have hoped to diversify my acting roles and career choices. And, as I turn 50 and am blessed with my remarkable, supportive wife and five wonderful children, now is that time. As I move on from Greyâ€™s Anatomy, I want to thank the ABC family, Shonda Rhimes, original cast members Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens, and the rest of the amazing cast and crew, both past and present, and, of course, the fans for an extraordinary ride," he added. Deadline was first to report the news.
Fans first met Alex in the show's pilot in 2005. He was a surgical intern at Seattle Grace Hospital, before moving up to resident and becoming a pediatric surgical fellow. Quickly becoming a fan-favorite, viewers witnessed Alex wed Katherine Heigl's character, Izzie Stevens, and then intern Jo Wilson played by Camilla Luddington.
Jessica Capshaw (Dr. Arizona Robbins)
In the penultimate season 14 episode, details of Capshaw's departure from Grey's were revealed: She was moving to New York City to be closer to the daughter she shares with her ex, Callie, and helping Nicole Herman open up a new clinic. In the finale, it was hinted that she and Callie may also be rekindling their romance. The announcement in March that Capshaw would be leaving, after playing one of TV's few LGBTQ characters for 10 seasons, was a shock to the system for fans. "I am sad to see her go, but I am consoled by the idea that she will continue to live on and on in all of our consciences and our imaginations," the actress wrote at the time.
Sarah Drew (Dr. April Kepner)
Drew, who played April since season six, was written out of the show at the end of season 14 and she got her happy ending, walking down the aisle in a surprise wedding with an old flame, Matthew -- with her ex-husband, Jackson, there to witness the happy day. She also decided to leave Grey Sloan to do God's work, helping homeless communities in Seattle. But there was some worry that she wouldn't survive the season. Things weren't looking good for the devout Christian doctor in the penultimate episode, as she was seen unconscious and barely clinging to life after suffering a car accident. Thankfully, she made it out with barely a scratch. Whew. Ellen Pompeo hinted to ET in May that Drew's character would not meet a horrific end -- and thankfully, she was right. "You only get killed off when your behavior is bad. If you're a nice actor, you die nice. ... But, yeah, these endings aren't tragic."
The actress later returned for an one-episode appearance in season 17, reuniting her with Jesse Williams and to offer proper closure for Jackson and April's storyline.
Martin Henderson (Dr. Nathan Riggs)
Though Henderson's time as Riggs on Grey's was relatively brief -- he joined midway through the 12th season and left early on in season 14 -- he made his time on the series count. An Army doctor who had a friendship and deep history with fellow Grey Sloan doc Owen, he grew to become Meredith's main love interest following Patrick Dempsey's departure, but Riggs and Meredith's romance was cut short when he was reunited with his former love, Owen's previously presumed dead sister, Megan. In the end, the pair decided to move to Los Angeles together.
Jerrika Hinton (Dr. Stephanie Edwards)
Hinton joined the medical drama in its ninth season, staying on for five seasons as Stephanie, one of Grey Sloan's surgical residents, and leaving at the end of the season 13 finale after suffering devastating burns following a fiery explosion in one of the hospital wings. Her near-death experience was enough for Stephanie to change course, and she made a declaration that she wanted to live her own life now. Hinton revealed to ET in February that she pitched a version of Stephanie's final episode where she died. "My heart grows to think that I did get a hero's end -- that I got to go out in a way that was not just incredibly human and honest, but also inspirational."
Sara Ramirez (Dr. Callie Torres)
Ramirez announced her decision to leave the show after 10 seasons of playing one of TV's groundbreaking bisexual characters following the season 12 finale. In Ramirez's final episode, she and her ex, Arizona, agreed that they would co-parent their daughter together. â€œIâ€™m deeply grateful to have spent the last 10 years with my family at Greyâ€™s Anatomy & ABC but for now, Iâ€™m taking some welcome time off,â€ Ramirez wrote in her note in 2016. â€œShonda been so incredible to work for, & we will definitely continue our conversations!â€
Patrick Dempsey (Dr. Derek Shepherd)
Dempsey's exit in season 11 was one of the most shocking moments in the history of Grey's, as his character, also known as "McDreamy," was one-half of the main couple on the series alongside Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey. In his final episode, Derek was rushed to the ER after a large semi truck struck his car and the team of under-trained doctors were unable to save him in time, forcing Meredith to pull the plug. â€œDerek Shepherd is and will always be an incredibly important character -- for Meredith, for me and for the fans. I absolutely never imagined saying goodbye to our 'McDreamy.' Patrick Dempseyâ€™s performance shaped Derek in a way that I know we both hope became a meaningful example -- happy, sad, romantic, painful and always true -- of what young women should demand from modern love,â€ creator Shonda Rhimes said in April 2015. â€œHis loss will be felt by all."
Dempsey later returned for multiple episodes in season 17, surprising longtime Grey's viewers when he appeared at the end of the premiere. "The idea just struck me so I just said to him, would you ever consider coming and being a part of the storytelling this season?" Pompeo shared, referencing Dempsey's cancer foundation in Maine, where he helps cancer patients and cancer survivors. "Thereâ€™s just so much darkness, and we knew that coming together would be a little ray of light. And so, I think we had the same idea, at the core, to want to help people and bring a smile to peopleâ€™s faces. So, he loved the idea, and we were just so excited, and we had a ball filming it."
"We hadnâ€™t spoken or been together for a while. It was a great opportunity to catch up and say, 'OK, what can we do for all the frontline responders?'" Dempsey said. "Iâ€™ve been tracking what Greyâ€™s had been doing with giving masks, and making sure that people had the right equipment, and it came from that place. 'OK, what can we do to make people feel better, to give some comfort in this time of uncertainty,' and thatâ€™s how it began."
Sandra Oh (Dr. Cristina Yang)
Oh was one of the original cast members on Grey's when it debuted in 2005 and was on the show for 10 seasons until she left in 2014, when Cristina made the leap to relocate and start anew in Zurich. As Meredith's "person," Owen's on-again/off-again love and a star surgeon, Oh's character was one of the most beloved of the series and speculation of a potential return has permeated ever since her departure. "I've gotta tell you, those rumors, I don't know who starts them but it really is tough," Oh admitted to ET Canada in 2016. "No, I have no plans to return to Grey's any time soon." But Oh did say in a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter that she'd be game to return for the series finale.
Eric Dane (Dr. Mark Sloan)
The "McSteamy" to Patrick Dempsey's "McDreamy," Dane joined the ABC drama as a recurring guest star in the sophomore season before being promoted to series regular in season three, and his character, Mark, was immediately dubbed the ladies' man of the hospital. His presence at the hospital caused more wrinkles than it stabilized the staff, with spicy affairs with Derek's estranged wife Addison, Callie and Lexie -- the latter a relationship he grew to embrace. Dane was written off in dramatic fashion; after Lexie's death following the eighth season finale plane crash, Mark succumbed to his injuries.
Dane later returned for a cameo appearance in season 17, reuniting him with Ellen Pompeo and Chyler Leigh.
Chyler Leigh (Dr. Lexie Grey)
Meredith's half-sister Lexie entered the picture in season three as part of that year's new class of interns, but became an integral part of the fabric of the series when she was upped to series regular at the start of season four. She became romantically involved with Mark in an on-again/off-again romance, and the two eventually reunited not long before they were both victims of a horrific plane crash at the end of season eight, during which she was the first to die. "My experience on Greyâ€™s Anatomy is something that I will treasure for the rest of my life. I want to take this time to say thank you to the fans," Leigh told TVLine. "Your unconditional love and support have made these last five years very special for me. I look forward to my next chapter and I hope you will continue to follow me on my journey.
Leigh returned for a special cameo in season 17, alongside Ellen Pompeo and Eric Dane, though her scenes were filmed against a green screen as she was up in Vancouver to wrap up her Supergirl run. "I was sitting on an apple box, and I was talking to tennis balls. So in that sense, it was interesting. But understanding there are dynamics between Lexie and Meredith, and then Lexie and Mark. It was really special to be able to be part of it and especially telling such a powerful story," she later told ET about her experience. "The tribute of this season is really towards first responders and their experience during the whole pandemic, so to be part of that was obviously very special. And to be able to close the chapter for Lexie, and to appear in a way where she's not eaten by wolves. Kind of bring a little life back to it... It was a special experience to be able to be part of that."
Kate Walsh (Dr. Addison Montgomery)
Addison's introduction on Grey's at the end of the first season is still one of the most memorable moments of the series. Still, she left after season three after deciding to have a baby and visiting her friend Naomi, a fertility specialist in California at Oceanside Wellness Group, making the move to the Golden State permanent. Walsh's spinoff, Private Practice, debuted in the fall of 2007 and ran for six seasons, but she would pop back in and out on Grey's through its eighth season.
Katherine Heigl (Dr. Izzie Stevens)
One of the original Grey's stars, Heigl left midway through season six after playing the bubbly, upbeat intern-turned-surgical resident Izzie for over 100 episodes. In her final episode, Heigl's character discovered she was cancer-free, attempted to reconcile with her ex, Alex, and turned down an offer to get her job back after getting fired, opting to move on for a fresh start. Heigl, who won the Emmy for her Grey's role in 2007, memorably took her name out of consideration in 2008 because she didn't feel she "was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination," a reference to her reduced workload that year.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Denny Duquette)
While Morgan only appeared in about two dozen episodes, he remains one of Grey's most memorable characters, playing Denny, a patient-turned-love interest for Izzie in the second and third seasons. Though the heart transplant Denny came in for was successful, he died suddenly after a stroke -- but not until after he'd proposed to Izzie and she'd accepted. Later, Izzie used the money he left her to open up the Denny Duquette Memorial Clinic. In season five, Morgan returned for a new arc when Izzie began hallucinating Denny around the time she discovered she was diagnosed with cancer.
T.R. Knight (Dr. George O'Malley)
Knight was the first major cast departure for Grey's, leaving in tragic yet heroic fashion at the end of season five. In his final episodes, his beloved character, George, ran in front of a bus in an effort to save a woman but was hit himself -- still one of TV's most shocking moments -- resulting in being completely unrecognizable to the doctors when he was rushed in. He would later die from his injuries, which became the topic of early season six, as his former colleagues mourned his death and attended his funeral. One of the original interns on Grey's, George was a puppy-eyed doctor whose close friendship with Meredith, fumbling romances with Izzie and Callie and adversarial dynamic with Alex made him even more relatable to viewers.
The Grey's alum later returned for a special guest appearance in season 17, appearing in the Dec. 3, 2020 episode for the first time since leaving in 2009. He shared a poignant scene with Grey's OGs Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson and James Pickens Jr. "George O'Malley will always claim my heart," Knight wrote on Instagram following the episode. "Thank you to Ellen, Chandra, Jim, Krista and all the familiar faces for once again sharing your beautiful light."
Isaiah Washington (Dr. Preston Burke)
Washington was one of the original doctors on Grey's when it debuted in 2005. He was fired in 2007 after the third season, following an incident where Washington allegedly used a gay slur in reference to T.R. Knight during an on-set argument and clashed with other co-stars. The actor eventually returned to Grey's for a 2014 episode to help kick off Sandra Oh's exit.