How Every Major 'Grey's Anatomy' Character Got Written Off the Show

Grey's Anatomy creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes is known for writing off her main characters. She even killed off Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey)—the McDreamy half of the show's central couple—amid reports he was causing problems on set. “It wasn’t easy or fun, it is never easy or fun," Rhimes once said of the decision. But she did what had to be done (and showrunner Krista Vernoff followed suit).

As the long-running series heads into its Season 19 finale (and perhaps says goodbye to another beloved cast member), let's take a look at how every major Grey's character got booted from Seattle Grace/Grey Sloan Memorial.

Related: Why Fans Are Worried That Catherine Fox Will Die on 'Grey's Anatomy'

How every major Grey's Anatomy character got written off the show

Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) — Season 3

Preston Burke left Grey's at the end of Season 3, abandoning Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) at the altar to seemingly disappear into thin air.

At the time, Isaiah Washington was mired in controversy after numerous reports claimed he called co-star T.R. Knight a homophobic slur. (Knight publicly came out as gay in People magazine shortly after that story broke.)

In an apparent effort to deny the reports, Washington repeated the slur in a backstage interview at the Golden Globe Awards. He said in a statement after the fact, "I apologize 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."

Speaking with Larry King after his firing, Washington admitted to using the slur during a heated fight with co-star Patrick Dempsey, but said his comment wasn't made in reference to or aimed at Knight. That altercation was discussed in the 2021 book How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey's Anatomy by Lynette Rice. Her reporting suggests the slur was made in reference to Knight but directed at Dempsey.

Washington returned to Grey's Anatomy in Season 10 to be part of Oh's farewell storyline. His character invites Cristina to join him at a cardiothoracic research hospital in Switzerland, and she decides to go.

Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) — Season 3

Addison Montgomery left Seattle to work at Seaside Health & Wellness Center in Los Angeles for ABC's spinoff series Private Practice, which ran for six seasons. Kate Walsh still popped up on Grey's for the occasional crossover episode until Private Practice ended in 2013; she then started appearing again on Grey's exclusively starting in Season 18 (2021).

Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith) — Season 5

Just after Dr. Erica Hahn started a relationship with Callie (Sara Ramirez), Brooke Smith was given the ax via a storyline that sees her character simply walking away from Seattle Grace. Smith told Entertainment Weekly, “it was the last thing I expected.”

“My final scene is just me heading to my car,” she said. “I honestly don’t know what happens in the next episode.”

As for why she was given such an abrupt exit, she said, “I don’t think I’m ever really going to know...I was really, really shocked. I was floored when they told me.”

There was some suggestion that Smith was fired because of her storyline, but Rhimes denied that in a statement to EW. “Brooke Smith was obviously not fired for playing a lesbian," she said. “Unfortunately, we did not find that the magic and chemistry with Brooke’s character would sustain in the long run.”

Related: Just What the Doctor Ordered! All About 'Grey's Anatomy' Season 20

George O'Malley (T.R. Knight) - Season 6

George O'Malley, a sweet, mostly selfless friend to all, was one of the original interns at the hospital formerly known as Seattle Grace. Fans were devastated by his gruesome death in Season 6, when he was dragged under a bus to the point of being unrecognizable (literally—his colleagues had no idea who they were trying to save).

The storyline produced one of the most emotional moments on the show, when George traced the numbers 007—his nickname—onto Meredith Grey's hand, prompting her to realize that her John Doe was, in fact, George.

Knight's exit from the show came with plenty of real-life drama. He asked to leave the series after a drastic reduction in his character's screen-time in Season 5, telling Entertainment Weekly that there was a "breakdown of communication" between himself and show creator/executive producer Shonda Rhimes that led him to throw in the towel rather than ask her what was going on with his character's arc.

"My five-year experience proved to me that I could not trust any answer that was given [about George]," he said. "And with respect, I'm going to leave it at that."

Izzie Stephens (Katherine Heigl) — Season 6

Izzie Stephens, another Seattle Grace OG, left the show in Season 6. The character wasn't killed off, but instead survived cancer, got a new job and asked her husband, Alex Karev (Justin Chambers), for a divorce.

Behind the scenes, Heigl caused quite the stir in 2008, when she withdrew her name from Emmy consideration for her role on the show, stating, "[I] did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination." She's since said her comment "wasn't very nice or fair" to the Grey's writers.

In a 2022 interview, Heigl talked more about her decision to leave the series in 2010, saying that the "level of intensity" of the show was not healthy for her, especially after the adoption of her first child, Naleigh.

"I think with Grey's at that time, I didn't feel I had any other choice [but to leave]," she said. "I was breaking, it was breaking me, and I was young."

Related: All About Katherine Heigl's Children

Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh) — Season 8

Meredith Grey's half-sister Lexie was introduced in Season 3 of the series. The surprise siblings didn't get along well at first, but eventually the characters became very close—and Lexie's death, which was the result of Season 8's catastrophic plane crash, came as a huge blow to fans.

“Earlier this year, I made the decision that Season 8 would be my last on Grey’s Anatomy,” she said at the time. “I met with Shonda and we worked together to give Lexie’s story appropriate closure. I am very lucky to have worked with this amazing cast and crew for five seasons. My experience on Grey’s Anatomy is something that I will treasure for the rest of my life."

Her character died trapped under a piece of plane debris, holding Mark Sloan's hand.

Mark Sloan (Eric Dane) — Season 9

Mark Sloan died as a result of the Season 8 plane crash, only he didn't die immediately. Because he initially survived the event, viewers hoped that he would pull through (there was an entire episode dedicated to his potential recovery!). But he ended up succumbing to his injuries at the hospital.

Eric Dane talked about leaving the show after getting offered a part in Michael Bay's The Last Ship, which ran for five seasons on TNT and ended in 2018.

"It was an opportunity for me to go and I was interested in something different," he told Entertainment Weekly. "...I loved doing Grey’s Anatomy. I would have done it until the final episode, but this was something I couldn’t pass up."

Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) — Season 10

Cristina Yang was one of Seattle Grace's original interns, and Sandra Oh lasted a whopping 10 seasons on the show before departing. Her exit was searing, especially for fans of Cristina's friendship with Meredith Grey.

So how did Cristina get written off? The character opted to move to Switzerland for a cardiothoracic position that had previously been held by none other than her ex-fiancé, Preston Burke.

“Creatively, I really feel like I gave it my all, and I feel ready to let her go,” Oh told The Hollywood Reporter at the time of her exit. “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.”

Derek Shephard (Patrick Dempsey) - Season 11

Derek Shepard died a hero's death, saving four people in a car collision before getting hit himself and suffering catastrophic brain injuries. But in real life, there were rumors of bad on-set behavior from Patrick Dempsey.

In a 2021 excerpt of Rice's book How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy, Grey's executive producer James D. Parriott says there were indeed "HR issues" that led to his firing.

"It wasn’t sexual in any way," he said in the book. "[Dempsey] 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," Parriot continued. "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."

It would seem that any hard feelings are now water under the bridge, however. Dempsey reprised his role in Season 17 of Grey's, with Derek appearing in Meredith's COVID-induced fever dreams.

Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) — Season 12

<p>Richard Cartwright/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images</p>

Richard Cartwright/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Callie Torres moved to New York with her then-girlfriend, Penny. Her departure was fairly anti-climatic, and many fans didn't think it was a befitting ending for such a beloved character.

In 2022, Sara Ramirez (who goes by they/them pronouns) told Variety, “I had reached a physical, emotional, mental capacity for playing the character—and had sort of lost myself with it.”

Stephanie Edwards (Jerrika Hinton) — Season 13

After surviving an explosion that nearly killed her, Stephanie Edwards decided to pursue an entirely new life—one that did not involve hospitals.

“Actors evolve differently and when an actor like Jerrika comes to me and says she wants to try something new creatively, I like to honor that," Rhimes said in a statement to Variety after Hinton's exit. "Jerrika has shared so much of herself with Stephanie and I am incredibly proud of the journey we’ve taken together. While I’m sad to see Stephanie leave Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, I am excited to see what’s next for Jerrika.”

Nathan Riggs (Martin Henderson) — Season 14

Nathan Riggs and Meredith Grey were on the brink of a real relationship when he found out that his former fiancé—and Owen's sister—Megan Hunt was still alive. Ultimately, Nathan realized that his love for Megan was still there and he left Seattle to live with her in Los Angeles. In Season 18, we find out in passing that they eventually split up.

Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) — Season 14

Arizona Robbins survived the fatal plane crash of Season 8 only to be written off with a move to New York—and fans were not happy about it.

"For the past ten years I have had the rare privilege of not only playing Arizona but also being madly in love with playing her," Jessica Capshaw wrote on Twitter. "...I am sad to see her go but I am consoled by the idea that she will continue to live on..."

At least in the world of Grey's, Arizona and Callie are reunited.

April Kepner (Sarah Drew) — Season 14

April and Jackson in Grey's Anatomy.<p>Mitch Haaseth via Getty Images</p>
April and Jackson in Grey's Anatomy.

Mitch Haaseth via Getty Images

Instead of being killed off, as it seemed like she might be, April Kepner was allowed to marry her ex-boyfriend Matthew and move forward with him outside of the walls of Grey Sloan Memorial. Much to fans' delight, Sarah Drew reprised her role in Season 17 to help wrap Jackson's storyline. (We also find out that she and Matthew separated.)

Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) — Season 16

Of all the major departures on Grey's, Alex Karev's may be the least satisfying. Karev wasn't seen in an episode for four months when Justin Chambers announced his intention to leave the series, and when the show finally put together a departure episode for him, it merely featured Karev narrating a bunch of letters he wrote to explain his disappearance. It turns out that his ex, one Dr. Izzie Stephens, had conceived twins with their embryos and he moved to Kansas to be a family with them.

Related: Why Did Alex Karev Leave 'Grey's Anatomy'?

Andrew Deluca (Giacomo Gianniotti) — Season 17

Andrew Deluca became a fan favorite soon after his debut in Season 11. Known for leading a moral crusade or two, Deluca uncovered that a patient was a victim of sex trafficking in Season 17 and was fatally stabbed in the resulting fallout. Despite the best efforts of the team at Grey Sloan, he died from his injuries.

"Thank you to all the fans who loved Deluca as much as I did," Giacomo Gianniotti wrote on Instagram.

Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) — Season 17

Jackson came on board Grey's back in Season 6 and eventually departed the show for good (or so we assume) in Season 17. The character wasn't killed off, but instead moved to Boston to run the Harper Avery Foundation. Happily, his ex-wife—a newly single April Kepner—and the pair's daughter, Harriet, move with him.

Maggie Pierce (Kelly McCreary) — Season 19

<p>ABC/Liliane Lathan</p>

ABC/Liliane Lathan

Maggie Pierce leaves Grey Sloan Memorial to take a research position at the Heart Center of Chicago. The move leads to the dissolution of her marriage to Dr. Winston Ndugu (Anthony Hill).

"I knew I might be throwing a wrench into their plans with the request [to leave the show] so I was open to anything," Kelly McCreary said in an interview with Deadline. "I was like, 'Look, if you’ve got to kill me I get it, tragic things happen to Meredith’s friends and family all the time, so if that’s where we have to go out, I understand.'"

Thankfully, the writers let her off easy—and with the potential to return.

Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) — Season 19

As the titular character, Meredith Grey was the heart and soul of the series for 19 seasons. Her character went through pretty much everything: love, loss, and unparalleled professional challenges and success. While there's always a chance that Meredith will grace the halls of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital once again (she's already due to return for the Season 19 finale), these days she and her children are in Boston, where she's working to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

Next, 50 'Grey's Anatomy' Quotes That Will Give You All the Feels