12:42pm PT by Josh Wigler, Lesley Goldberg
'Walking Dead' Star Andrew Lincoln: "This Will Be My Last Season Playing Rick Grimes"
It's official: Andrew Lincoln is leaving The Walking Dead.
The actor, who has starred on the AMC zombie drama since its pilot, on Friday confirmed news of his departure while speaking in front of a packed crowd at San Diego Comic-Con.
"There seems to be an elephant in the room," said Lincoln, speaking a packed Hall H. "This will be my last season playing the part of Rick Grimes."
The delcaration marks Lincoln's first remarks on the matter of his Walking Dead exit since reports first surfaced in May that season nine would be the end of the line for his character Rick Grimes. The actor was visibly emotional while confirming the news of his departure, who interrupted his own announcement to say: "I promise not to cry." (The same could not be said for the more than 7,000 people filling Hall H, who collectively groaned in sadness.)
"I love this show. It means everything to me. I love the people who make this show. I’m particularly fond of the people who watch this show," said Lincoln, who has since returned to his London home and shaved Rick's signature beard. "I'm really, really excited about this season. No one is bigger than the story, and the story this year is unbelievable."
While Lincoln noted that his "relationship with Rick Grimes is far from over," it's unclear if he was referring to his role in season nine or beyond as AMC is plotting other series and potential spinoffs of the franchise under Scott M. Gimple in his new role as chief creative officer of the Walking Dead universe.
"These guys have been the best surrogate family I could have hoped for. But I do have a real family and it is time for me to go home, but Norman [Reedus, who plays Daryl] and Danai [Gurira, who plays Michonne] send me scripts so I can keep one eye on the series," Lincoln said at the end of the panel after a fan thanked him for committing 10 years of his life to the show. "It's been everything to me for 10 years. I believe in the story so much that I can't spoil it for you. This is a really terrific season."
Lincoln's remarks were followed by a standing ovation, given Friday could be his final appearance at Comic-Con as the actor at the top of the call sheet on The Walking Dead.
In terms of the upcoming ninth season, at least, Lincoln revealed that the next batch of episodes includes two of his favorite installments of the entire series. "I think the cast is doing the greatest work I've ever seen," he said. "It will continue to be an ensemble."
Lincoln's confirmation follows on the heels of comments made earlier this week by executive producer Robert Kirkman, creator of the Walking Dead comic books on which the show is based. In those remarks, Kirkman said Lincoln "cares about the show deeply. He wants to do something special on the way out. We have something amazing planned. I wouldn't want to spoil anything, but anybody who has been a fan of his journey, who loves Rick Grimes, who loves the world of The Walking Dead, you're going to want to see what we do."
Season nine is wildly considered to be a creative reboot in many ways. Longtime writer and executive producer Angela Kang was promoted to showrunner, replacing Gimple, who was upped to oversee the entire Walking Dead franchise as its chief creative officer in a larger role for AMC that helps make up for Kirkman's move to Amazon.
Kirkman on Thursday confirmed that Lincoln would indeed be exiting the franchise this season. Sources told The Hollywood Reporter that Lincoln will have an exit strategy similar to co-star Lauren Cohan (who plays Maggie), with the latter returning for only six episodes as she segues to ABC's midseason drama Whiskey Cavalier following a salary renegotiation gone south with AMC. Amid Lincoln's pending departure, Reedus has been in negotiations for a new $20 million-plus deal to take over as The Walking Dead's leading man.
All the creative changes come as The Walking Dead season nine will feature a time jump in a storyline ripped directly from Kirkman's source material. As in the comics, the series will take a leap forward following Rick's war with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and, according to Kang, will focus on the larger theme of "what it means to have a civilization." That was among the narratives teed up at the end of season eight when the show opted to kill off Carl (Chandler Riggs), who long had been considered the future of the series and (spoiler alert) continues to kick ass in the comics. That helped set the stage for Lincoln's departure.
For his part, Lincoln lives with his family in London and returns to the show's Atlanta set for production. He has made no secret that he has little desire to cash in on the show's success with film deals and saw his time with The Walking Dead coming to an end sooner rather than later after Rick's death was foreshadowed multiple times in a season-eight storyline that wound up being part of Carl's death.
In December, Lincoln told THR that "there needs to be an end game and that is something that is definitely being talked about." In February, the actor said that "there's certainly an endgame in my head. Whether or not that's the same endgame that's in the producers' heads or the people I work with, is another matter. That's open for discussion."
Lincoln and Reedus' respective contracts were up after season eight. Unlike in the past, AMC was slow to announce a season-nine renewal as the series was negotiating a larger pact with now-former showrunner Gimple. Reedus and Lincoln closed new deals at the time to return for season nine, with the former now looking to cash in given the latter's pending departure.
"There are lots of unanswered questions, and we owe a debt to all of the viewers to answer a few of those," Lincoln said in February when asked about a storyline in which Rick appeared to be dying. "So, yes, once they're answered, there is an endgame. I've said it before. There's certainly an endgame in my head."
Byron Burton contributed reporting to this story.
Follow THR.com/WalkingDead for more coverage.