To this day, Grey’s Anatomy’s Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd are believed to have one of the best relationships in a TV drama. From season one through to season 11 of the popular medical series, the pair were true couple goals. But behind the scenes, it appears that things were far from idyllic for Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey. And the actress has gone on to make a shocking revelation about her former co-star.
Pompeo still appears on Grey’s Anatomy, of course, and is one of the highest-earning actresses in the television industry. But the series’ on-screen drama has frequently threatened to be overshadowed by real-life goings-on. For the last decade, in fact, Grey’s Anatomy cast members have made headlines for controversial behavior.
What’s more, the behind-the-scenes chaos seems to occasionally leak into the show’s storylines. When Shepherd died in 2015, for example, it came before Dempsey’s contract had ended. Ever since, rumors have spread about why the actor left the show. And Pompeo would make a surprising admission about Dempsey’s exit during an appearance on Red Table Talk in December 2018.
Created by Shonda Rhimes, Grey’s Anatomy came into being in 2005; at that point, Pompeo was still fairly untested in her career. And the series followed the actress’ character Grey as she rose up the ranks of Seattle Grace Hospital. Luckily for Pompeo, then, Grey’s Anatomy was a big hit from the start, and the lead ended up winning praise for her performance to boot.
But it didn’t take long for drama to start off camera. In 2006, for instance, Isaiah Washington, who played Dr. Preston Burke, was accused of using homophobic language in the vicinity of his fellow actor T.R. Knight, who was gay but not yet publicly out. Ultimately, Washington ended up giving an apology via People in October that year.
Washington’s statement read, “I sincerely regret my actions and the unfortunate use of words during the recent incident on set. Both are beneath my own personal standards. I have nothing but respect for my co-workers and have apologized personally to everyone involved.” But was it enough?
Well, Rhimes indicated to People that the cast were putting the whole incident behind them. The people involved had “had conversations,” she said, and the fight had been “four and a half seconds of one day in three years.” Rhimes added, “I feel like we’ve already moved on.”
Nevertheless, in 2007 Washington was fired from the show, with an anonymous source going on to tell ABC, “It was a difficult year, and this should come as no surprise to anyone.” And Washington himself appeared to be furious. He gave a statement via his publicist that referenced a famous line from the movie Network: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
While all this was going on behind the scenes, though, Pompeo was racking up numerous awards for her performance as Grey. At the 2007 Satellite Awards, for example, she won the Best Actress in a Television Series honor. That same year, she was also recognized by the National Italian American Foundation for her work.
But when Pompeo’s co-star Katherine Heigl was nominated for an Emmy in 2008, Heigl ended up speaking out against the show instead. And she removed herself from the Emmy race with the statement, “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 organization I withdrew my name from contention.”
Owing to that move, viewers thought that Rhimes would kill off Heigl’s character or that the actress would leave the show in some other way. But, surprisingly, she didn’t. Yes, although the show runner seemed unimpressed with Heigl’s behavior in interviews, the star was still on set for season five.
And despite everything going on around her, Pompeo maintained her privacy and kept herself largely out of the headlines. As for her character, by the end of season five Grey had reached a major milestone in her life, becoming the fiancée of on-off boyfriend Shepherd.
Lots of very dramatic things happened to Grey and Shepherd after that. They married in season seven and adopted a child with spina bifida. Then came a plane crash, an intense operation to restore nerve function in Derek’s hand and arguments between the pair about balancing their careers with their growing family.
And off camera, Pompeo and Dempsey seemed to be pretty close – according to the latter, at least. In 2012 Dempsey told TV Line that he and his screen wife were actually “like a married couple at this point.” He added, “We’ve been together for nine years. We’ve gone through everything.”
Of his relationship with Pompeo, Dempsey continued, “We have a lot of fun. You go through all the emotions because you’re spending a lot of time together. [There are days when] you go, ‘Oh, okay. You’re obviously in a bad mood. I’ll come back in about ten minutes.’ And then you get on with it.”
Dempsey had at that point signed on for another two years of Grey’s Anatomy. And when TV Line asked him why, he answered, “Everybody’s working really well together. The scheduling is working out this year. And it’s still amazingly popular. I had a long time where I wasn’t working. I was struggling. So why not?”
Meanwhile, in October 2013 Pompeo gave a revealing interview to the New York Post about how she’d weathered the various Grey’s Anatomy behind-the-scenes scandals. The actress explained, “Hurt feelings, combined with instant success and huge paychecks, started things spinning out of control.”
Pompeo continued, “The crazier things got, as I watched all the tumult with Isaiah and then the Katie [Heigl] thing, I started to focus on the work. Maybe it is my Boston, blue-collar upbringing. I just tried to not pay attention to all the noise around me.” But sadly for those involved, there would be yet more drama to come.
Dempsey spoke in the same interview about his character and his future on the show. He divulged, “Of course I have thought about leaving. It’s always at the end of the season, when you are tired of having no control over your schedule [and] when you can’t see the forest for the trees to know how fortunate you are.”
But when Dempsey did actually leave the show, it caused yet more major controversy, as Shepherd died in a dramatic fashion before the actor’s contract actually ended. The surgeon got into a car crash, didn’t receive the proper medical care and subsequently died, leaving fans shocked and horrified as a result.
And while plenty of people wanted to know why Shepherd was no more, Dempsey himself kept quiet about the exact reason. The actor told Entertainment Weekly in 2015, “Things happened very quickly. We were like, ‘Oh, this is where it’s going to go.’ I think it will be very shocking for fans, the way it happens. It’s really going to be powerful.”
Yet although Dempsey was diplomatic enough in the interview, there seemed to be something left unsaid. Regarding Shepherd’s death, the actor merely claimed that there hadn’t been “a lot of discussion” about it. Then, finally, he trailed off and told the interviewer that the rest was “a question for Shonda.”
And Rhimes, for her part, did talk to Entertainment Weekly about Dempsey’s departure. In a statement, she revealed, for example, that she had “never imagined saying goodbye” to his character.” The show runner added, “None of us here at Grey’s Anatomy imagined any of the many journeys this show has taken us on. Now, Meredith and I are about to enter uncharted territory as we head into this new chapter of her life.”
But rumors circulated that nothing involving Dempsey’s departure was as calm as it appeared. Before Shepherd was killed off, an anonymous source told Page Six, “Patrick has been acting like a diva and has clashed with Shonda. She suspended him for a while, and the word on set is that he isn’t coming back full time.”
The anonymous insider added, “Given all the past problems with Katherine Heigl and Isaiah Washington, there is little tolerance on the show for troublesome talent.” Page Six did a little investigating of its own before publishing the comments, though, and a representative for Dempsey told the website that the story was not true.
Meanwhile, Radar Online would similarly elaborate on the rumors. According to another anonymous “show source,” Dempsey had embarked on a relationship with a member of staff on the show, and this liaison had ultimately soured things on set. The individual alleged, “Patrick’s affair with the staffer on the show began last August.”
The Radar Online source added, “[The relationship] got very messy and emotional on set and became a huge liability. Patrick would remain in his trailer after hooking up with [the staffer] on set and refuse to come out. He had also been complaining about the story line of his character and felt he wasn’t getting enough screen time.”
And while the insider claimed that the staff member had ended up being moved, this apparently didn’t help matters much. They alleged, “There were lingering feelings of anger towards Patrick, and it was only getting worse. This is when he began showing up late [and] not remembering lines. Shonda had no other choice but to fire him.” A spokesperson for Dempsey rebuffed the claims, though, calling the whole story “absurd.”
Still, the plot would thicken even further after Rhimes herself spoke out about the issue – albeit rather cryptically. During a 2015 appearance on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, it emerged that she had once killed off a Grey’s Anatomy character because she disliked the person who had played them. And while Rhimes said, “I’m not naming names,” fans guessed that the individual in question was Dempsey.
Yet when Entertainment Weekly asked Dempsey about the relationship between himself and Pompeo, he said he was in a “very good” place with his fellow star. The actor added, “It’s magic. We’re like a married couple. It’s ten years, and it was magic from the beginning.”
But was the same thing true from Pompeo’s side? Well, in December 2018 the actress appeared on the Facebook Watch show Red Table Talk and made a surprising revelation. And it emerged that while Grey may have loved Shepherd, Pompeo hadn’t seen Dempsey since he had left the show three years prior.
Yes, Pompeo told host Jada Pinkett Smith that she and Dempsey “[hadn’t] spoken since [he] left the show.” Nonetheless, she did quickly add that this state of affairs hadn’t arisen out of any kind of malice or dislike towards her fellow celebrity. The star said, “I have no hard feelings toward [Dempsey]. He’s a wonderful actor, and we made the best TV you can make together.”
Pompeo went on, saying of her former co-star, “That’s a talented man right there. [Dempsey] did 11 amazing years. Typically, when people leave the show, they need to sort of find themselves [and] who they are without the show because [it] takes up so much of your life. You need that time to figure out who you are without the show. So we have not spoken, but I will always have a place in my heart for Patrick.”
That last revelation may provide some solace to fans of Grey and Shepherd. Yet after Pompeo sat down to shoot Red Table Talk, she gave an interview in which she was fairly blunt about how much – or how little – she actually enjoyed making Grey’s Anatomy.
Talking to Taraji P. Henson for Variety in June 2019, Pompeo said, “It’s funny. I never wanted off the bus in the year that I could get off. The first ten years we had serious culture issues, very bad behavior [and a] really toxic work environment.”
It was only after the tenth season, Pompeo revealed, that things started to change; Dempsey, remember, had left in season 11. Pompeo explained, “We had some big shifts – in front of the camera, behind the camera. Then it became my goal to turn that set around. Shonda Rhimes and I decided that we want to rewrite the ending of this story.”
Pompeo added, “We want to turn the page and start a new chapter and turn the culture around behind the curtain.” So, with that in mind, she started working towards that end. The star continued, “It became my goal to have an experience there that I could be happy and proud about, because [we’d] had so much turmoil for ten years.”
And Dempsey’s departure had apparently galvanized Pompeo, the actress revealed. According to her, network executives had told her that Grey’s Anatomy “could not possibly go on without the male lead, so [she] had a mission to prove that it could.” Pompeo has also spoken about Dempsey having been paid more money than her on the show.
Then, after the release of the interview, Pompeo took to Twitter to talk directly to her critics. She said, “Anyone having feelings over [the] Variety piece, it’s not worth getting yourself upset over not singling anyone out… As a show, we all had a part to play in the environment, me included… as many workplaces do… We changed that story.”
And Grey’s Anatomy is still going on without Dempsey, who’s now the star of movies such as Bridget Jones’s Baby and The Art of Racing in the Rain. Pompeo, on the other hand, has claimed that she’ll likely quit acting once Grey’s Anatomy ends. So, who knows? Maybe after that the two actors will get back in touch.