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Grey's Anatomy – why some of the show's biggest stars left

Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey and Sandra Oh have all waved goodbye 

Megan Bull
TV Writer
14 May 2024
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Since its inception in 2005, Grey's Anatomy has gifted the world with unforgettable characters and thought-provoking storylines. 

Boasting a 19-year tenure, viewers have come to know and love the endless interns, residents and surgeons introduced at Seattle Grace Hospital (now Grey Sloan Memorial), but we've also waved goodbye to most of the original cast, including Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey, Sandra Oh, and Katherine Heigl

Here, we reveal why the fan-favorites felt it was the right time to say goodbye…

Ellen Pompeo as Meredith Grey © Getty

Ellen Pompeo

It wouldn't be Grey's Anatomy without Meredith Grey, and while Ellen Pompeo has taken a step back from the show, she remains an executive producer and narrator. 

After more than 400 episodes and 19 seasons as the titular intern turned Chief of Surgery, Ellen announced that she was leaving Grey's in November 2022. 

Appearing on The Drew Barrymore Show in February 2023, she explained the reasons behind her departure. "I feel super happy, but listen, the show has been incredible to me and I've loved a lot of the experience. It's just I gotta mix it up a little bit," she began. 

"I'm fifty-three, my brain is like scrambled eggs. I gotta do something new or I'm literally gonna turn into like, you can't do the New York Times crossword puzzle every single day. I mean, 19 years, that's more than people keep their kids in their house, like people keep their kids in their house until they're 18 and then they send them off to college. So this is like me going away to college."

Explaining that she had a new miniseries in the works with Hulu, Ellen added that she also wanted to spend more time with her three children. 

Speaking to Deadline in March 2024, Grey's showrunner Meg Marinis revealed that Ellen has maintained an "open door policy" with the show, meaning the actress can still make appearances as and when she likes, so it's not goodbye forever! 

Patrick Dempsey as Derek Shephard in Grey's© Getty

Patrick Dempsey

Oh McDreamy, why did you have to die? After appearing as Derek Shepherd for a decade, Patrick Dempsey decided to leave the show in 2015, with his character killed off in a brutal car accident. 

Speaking to People in 2016, Patrick noted that the long hours on set had impacted his decision to leave. "I think after a certain period of time, no matter how much money you make, you want control out of your own schedule," he said. 

"It had been long enough. It was time for me to move on with other things and other interests. I probably should have moved on a couple of years earlier. I stayed a bit longer than I should have."

The show's creator, Shonda Rhimes, also weighed in, explaining that the only way for Derek to plausibly leave the show was to have him die because fans wouldn't believe he'd walk away from Meredith. 

According to former executive producers James D. Parriott and Jeannine Renshaw, however, there was more to the story. 

In their tell-all book, How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey's Anatomy (2021), the duo insisted that there had been "issues" behind the scenes, with Patrick behaving badly on set and butting heads with Shonda Rhimes and Ellen Pompeo. 

While the stars have kept tightlipped about the finer details of their time on set, Patrick, Shonda and Ellen have collaborated since, with the McDreamy actor appearing in a dream sequence in series 17. 

Leading lady Ellen said it had been a "ball" filming with Patrick, while the 58-year-old remarked that it had been "healing" to reunite with his Grey's family for the episode. 

sandra oh greys© Photo: Getty Images

Sandra Oh

Sandra Oh's performance as the feisty and fearless Cristina Yang made her a fan-favorite, but in 2013, she announced her plans to leave Grey's, and by 2014, she'd made her final appearance in the medical drama.  

"Creatively, I really feel like I gave it my all, and I feel ready to let her go," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's such an interesting thing to play a character for so long and to actually get the sense that she wants to be let go as well. [Cristina] wants to be let go, and I am ready to let her go."

Given a fitting exit, Cristina was written out after receiving a dream job offer in Zurich, Switzerland, which she gladly accepted. Of course, this means the door is open should Sandra want to return, although the actress has no immediate plans to do so. 

"I love that, I love that people are still [fans]," she told Entertainment Tonight in April 2024. "I love that you asked me that, because Cristina Yang is, of course, near and dear to my heart. [But] I will say, not anytime soon, my love."

Justin Chambers as Dr Alex Karev in Grey's Anatomy© Getty

Justin Chambers

Resident bad boy Alex Karev served as a core character from 2005 to 2020, but after 15 years, Justin Chambers decided to call time on the role. 

"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," he said in a statement to Deadline. "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."

Given a happy ending, Alex was written out after jetting to Kansas to be with his former flame Izzie Stevens and their children. 

Katherine Heigl as Izzie Stevens© Getty

Katherine Heigl

Katherine Heigl's exit from Grey's became a point of contention. A fan-favorite thanks to her portrayal of Izzie Stevens, fans were shocked when her character departed suddenly in season six.

After opting out of Emmys consideration for her role on the show in 2008, Katherine described the working hours on Grey's as "cruel and mean" while appearing on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2009. 

Following her departure from the series a year later, rumours began swirling that the actress was difficult to work with and had clashed with Shonda Rhimes behind the scenes. 

Thirteen years after she'd walked away from the show, Katherine opened up about the situation during a conversation with Ellen Pompeo for Variety's Actors on Actors series. 

"I was so naive. I got on my soapbox and I had some things to say, and I felt really passionate about this stuff. I felt really strongly. I felt so strongly that I also got a megaphone out on my soapbox. There was no part of me that imagined a bad reaction. I felt really justified in how I felt about it and where I was coming from," noted Katherine.

"You were just a little early, because they came out with this thing where everybody has their own megaphone and they get a blue check. It's called Twitter," replied Ellen. "You were just a little ahead of your time, lady."

Regardless of what's been and gone, Katherine has maintained a good relationship with her former co-stars and surprised fans by reuniting with them on stage during the Emmy Awards in January 2024.