Every Grey's Anatomy actor who left the show and why

27 November 2020, 16:36

Grey's Anatomy teases the return of another past character in season 17

Katie Louise Smith

By Katie Louise Smith

Who left and who got fired? Here's what happened to 15 of Grey's Anatomy's biggest stars and their reasons for leaving the show.

Grey's Anatomy has been on air for 17 seasons and, in that time, it feels like we've said goodbye to more characters than we've all collectively had hot dinners.

With the exciting news that more past characters will be returning to the show amid Meredith's (not so exciting) COVID-19 storyline, it seems like the perfect time to take a stroll through memory lane and revisit those we've loved (or perhaps, not loved at all) and lost.

From the shock departures and the dramatic firings to all the fake doctors we've said goodbye to in between, here's every main cast member who has left the show and the reason why.

READ MORE: Grey's Anatomy confirms more surprise returns in season 17

Every actor who left Grey’s Anatomy and why they left
Every actor who left Grey’s Anatomy and why they left. Picture: Mike Rosenthal/ABC via Getty Images, Bob D'Amico/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Why did Justin Chambers leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Chambers played Dr. Alex Karev from season 1 to season 16.)

Chambers announced his unexpected departure from the show in the middle of season 16, after his final episode had already aired. He also didn't return on-screen for Alex's farewell episode. There's been no explanation as to why his departure was so abrupt. In a statement to Deadline, Chambers said: “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.”

How was Alex Karev written out?
Alex was last seen in season 16, episode 8. It was revealed that he had reunited with Izzie Stevens, leaving his wife Jo, his job and Seattle altogether. After receiving a letter from Izzie, she told him that she had used the frozen embryos they created together (with his prior permission), and that he was a father to 5-year-old twins, Eli and Alexis. He went to meet them, realised he could never leave them and decided to never come back.

Why did Patrick Dempsey leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Dempsey played Dr. Derek Shepherd from season 1 to season 11. He returned in season 17.)

There was a lot of drama surrounding Dempsey's departure from the series, although most of it was based on speculation. Despite rumours of a rift between him and Shonda Rhimes, Rhimes revealed that the decision came from a mutual discussion. Ultimately, Dempsey stepped away from the show to focus on himself, his family and his passion for racing. He told People: "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."

How was Derek Shepherd written out?
Derek was driving when he stopped in the middle of an intersection and was hit by a truck. He was then taken to an ill-equipped hospital where the doctors failed to give him a head CT. He ended up brain dead, and Meredith later agreed to take him off life support.

READ MORE: Patrick Dempsey will appear in three more episodes of Grey's Anatomy

Patrick Dempsey returns as Derek to Grey’s Anatomy

Why did T.R. Knight leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Knight played Dr. George O'Malley from season 1 to season 5.)

Knight revealed to EW that he left the show due to a “breakdown of communication” between himself and Shonda Rhimes. Instead of asking what happened, he just decided to leave: “My five-year experience proved to me that I could not trust any answer that was given [about George]. And with respect, I’m going to leave it at that.” Knight also said that Rhimes was among those who tried to discourage him from coming out in real life so soon after the Isaiah Washington issue, but she later denied that.

How was George O'Malley written out?
In the final episodes of season 5, George decides to enlist as an army medic, but ends up being hit by a bus after saving a woman's life. He’s brought to Seattle Grace as a John Doe, until Meredith realises his identity when he writes 007 in her hand. He dies of his injuries on the OR table.

Why did Katherine Heigl leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Heigl played Dr. Izzie Stevens from season 1 to season 6.)

It all started when Heigl withdrew her name from the Emmys, saying: “I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination." That did not sit well with Rhimes and it was decided that she would be written out. Heigl officially left Grey's in season 6, saying she wanted to spend more time with her family. Rhimes later told Oprah: "On some level, it stung and on some level I was not surprised. When people show you who they are, believe them."

How was Izzie Stevens written out?
After making an unforgivable mistake with a patient, Izzie was fired, blamed Alex for snitching on her and left Seattle. She briefly returned, only for Alex to say he didn’t want to continue their marriage. In season 16, it’s revealed that Izzie and Alex have 5-year-old twins, made from their frozen embryos. She reunited with Alex and they're now together in Kansas.

Why did Chyler Leigh leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Leigh played Dr. Lexie Grey from the penultimate episode of season 3 to season 8.)

Leigh told TVLine it was her own decision to leave the show: “Earlier this year, I made the decision that season eight would be my last on Grey’s Anatomy. I met with [creator Shonda Rhimes] 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.”

How was Lexie Grey written out?
Lexie was one of the doctors who was on the plane to Boise when it crashed in the middle of a forest. She got trapped under the plane and died at the scene just after Mark professed his love for her.

Why did Eric Dane leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Dane played Dr. Mark Sloan from season 2 to season 9.)

Dane revealed to EW that he chose to leave Grey’s Anatomy for TNT’s The Last Ship: Grey’s Anatomy is a world — it’s not about any one individual actor. And the storylines were sort of, you know, heading in different directions. So it was an opportunity for me to go and I was interested in something different. I loved doing Grey’s Anatomy. I would have done it until the final episode. But this was something I couldn’t pass up.”

How was Mark Sloan written out?
After initially surviving the crash, Mark suffered from severe internal injuries. At the start of season 9, he's revealed to be on life support. He experiences a 'surge', but later slips into a coma and passes away shortly after.


Why did Sandra Oh leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Oh played Dr. Cristina Yang from season 1 to season 10.)

After 10 seasons, Oh was just ready to move on from the show. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Oh said: "Creatively, I really feel like I gave it my all, and I feel ready to let her go. 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."

How was Cristina Yang written out?
Cristina was offered an entire hospital in Zurich by Preston Burke that would allow her to carry out life changing research and advance her career in ways she couldn't possibly say no to. She took the offer, and moved to Switzerland with her resident Dr. Shane Ross.

Why did Sarah Drew leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Drew played Dr. April Kepner from season 6 to season 14.)

Drew was "let go" from the show in season 14 and the news left fans furious. She found out while she was on-set, shadowing Kevin McKidd as he directed an episode. Drew told THR the reason behind her dismissal: "I was told that the show had too many characters and that they needed to downsize because they couldn't service all of the characters effectively. They didn't want any of us to be left in the background and not getting much of a story."

How was April Kepner written out?
April ended up reuniting with her ex-fiancé Matthew and they end up getting married on a whim at Jo and Alex’s wedding. She quit her job as a trauma surgeon and is now volunteering at homeless shelters in Seattle.

Why did Jessica Capshaw leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Capshaw played Dr. Arizona Robbins from season 5 to season 14.)

Capshaw was let go at the same time as Sarah Drew, for the same reason. In a statement after the news broke, she said: “For the past ten years I have had the rare privilege of not only playing Arizona Robbins, but also being madly in love with playing her. She was one of the first members of the LGBTQ community to be represented in a series regular role on network television. Her impact on the world is forever. ”

How was Arizona Robbins written out?
Arizona quit her role at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital and decided to take a job in New York so that Sofia could be with both of her parents. In the final episode of season 14, it's confirmed that she and Callie are on good terms, as they speak excitedly about the move via text.


Why did Sara Ramirez leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Ramirez played Dr. Callie Torres from season 2 to season 12)

Ramirez decided that she needed to take some welcome time off after 10 years on the show. Ramirez also told EW that she was open to returning to the show one day: “When Shonda and I last spoke, we agreed to keep the conversations going, and she knows I’m open to keeping those conversations going.”

How was Callie Torres written out?
Following a nasty custody battle with Arizona, Callie moved to New York with girlfriend Penny, who had received a prestigious work offer. Some time after moving, Callie and Penny broke up. Callie is still in New York, with Sofia and Arizona who moved there after season 14.

Why did Isaiah Washington leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Washington played Dr. Preston Burke from season 1 to season 3. He returned in season 10 for one episode.)

Isaiah Washington was fired from the show after an on-set incident involving Patrick Dempsey and T.R. Knight. Washington reportedly uttered a homophobic slur, which he initially denied. He then went on to use the word again, while still denying the claims, in front of press at the Golden Globes. Washington later apologised but told Larry King that he had never used the “f-word” in reference to Knight, but rather said it in a heated confrontation with Dempsey.

How was Preston Burke written out?
Burke was written out at the end of season 3, leaving Sandra Oh’s eyebrow-less Cristina at the altar on their wedding day. Later, we find out he went on to win a Harper Avery award. In season 10, Burke returns after inviting Cristina to Switzerland and asks her to take over his hospital. He is also now married with two daughters.

Why did Jerrika Hinton leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Hinton played Dr. Stephanie Edwards from season 9 to season 13.)

Hinton was rumoured to be leaving the show 2 years before it happened after she booked a role on a new Shondaland show called Toast. The show didn't get picked up, and she decided with Rhimes that it was time to move on anyway. She told THR: "Shonda and I had a meeting at the beginning of season 13 where we talked about my departure and my creative process, and she was very supportive of my wishes,"

How was Stephanie Edwards written out?
After saving the life of a little girl in the hospital fire, and ending up being badly burned herself, Edwards decided to move on from Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital as a hero, to travel, see the world and live her best life.

Why did Kate Walsh leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Walsh played Dr. Addison Montgomery from season 2 to season 3 and in the final episode of season 1.)

Well, Kate Walsh didn't really leave the Grey's Anatomy universe. She was given her own spin-off show, Private Practice, where we saw Addie kick ass and save babies for another 6 years.

How was Addison written out?
After finally coming to terms with the fact that her marriage to Derek was over and there wasn't much for her in Seattle anyway, she moved to LA to start a new life. She returned for another 5 crossover episodes, but hasn't been back since season 8. At the end of Private Practice, Addison adopted a son called Henry, and married Dr. Jake Reilly.


Why did Brooke Smith leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Smith played Dr. Erica Hahn from season 3 to season 5.)

There's a little bit of drama surrounding Smith's departure from the series. In an interview with EW, Smith said that Shonda Rhimes “just suddenly told me that they couldn’t write for my character anymore.” In a statement following Smith's departure, Rhimes also told EW: “Brooke Smith was obviously not fired for playing a lesbian. Unfortunately, we did not find that the magic and chemistry with Brooke’s character would sustain in the long run.”

How was Erica Hahn written out?
After breaking up with Callie, Erica literally just disappears into the parking lot of Seattle Grace, never to be seen again.

Why did Martin Henderson leave Grey's Anatomy?

(Henderson played Dr. Nathan Riggs from season 12 to season 14.)

Henderson was written out of the show once his contract ran out. He explained to Deadline: "I only had a short-term contract with the show. This is my final year so I was expecting Nathan’s storyline to be wrapped up. Bringing in Megan and tying up loose ends, provided a reason."

How was Nathan Riggs written out?
Riggs ended up leaving on a very rare note: A happily ever after. Riggs reunited with Owen's sister Megan Hunt and the two of them left for Los Angeles, with Megan's son Farouk in tow.

QUIZ: Can you name all 15 of these Grey's Anatomy characters?

QUIZ: Only a Grey's Anatomy expert can score 15/17 in this ultimate quiz