[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the April 23 episode of Grey’s Anatomy.]
ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy is losing its leading man.
Star Patrick Dempsey — aka Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd — is exiting the Shonda Rhimes drama. The news leaked early because of a story in Entertainment Weekly in which ABC participated.
Dempsey’s character will be written out of the series during Thursday’s episode, which fittingly is titled “How to Save a Life,” in a nod to the show’s unofficial theme song.
The episode, the first that Rhimes has written since the season-eight finale in which series regulars Chyler Leigh (Lexie) and Kim Raver (Teddy) were written out, features Derek witnessing a horrible car crash and attempting to save the lives of three young passengers.
For fan favorite Dempsey, the decision to exit the veteran medical drama comes early, as he still had a year remaining on his contract, which would have kept him with the Thursday-night staple through its yet-to-be-announced 12th season.
Dempsey and his leading lady, Ellen Pompeo — two of TV’s highest-paid stars — both inked new two-year deals in January 2014 that would have kept the beloved duo on Grey’s through the 2015-2016 season. Co-stars Sara Ramirez (Callie), Chandra Wilson (Bailey), Justin Chambers (Alex) and James Pickens Jr. (Richard) all reupped with two-year pacts last May — also keeping the rest of the show’s central stars through season 12.
Dempsey becomes the latest original Grey’s Anatomy star to exit the drama. Fan favorite Sandra Oh (Cristina) opted to exit the Rhimes and Betsy Beers-produced drama at the end of season 10.
In addition to Oh, season 10 featured the departures of Gaius Charles (Shane) and Tessa Ferrer (Leah), whose contracts were not renewed. The series has also seen stars Eric Dane (Mark), T.R. Knight (George), Isaiah Washington (Burke) and Katherine Heigl (Izzie) exit, while Kate Walsh (Addison) left to star in spinoff Private Practice.
Dempsey’s Derek and Pompeo’s Meredith have been the show’s central duo since the pilot. Rhimes told THR at the start of the season that this year would focus on Meredith and her ability to stand on her own, without Cristina and Derek’s support.
Dempsey and Pompeo, as well as Chambers, Wilson and Pickens, were the show’s only remaining original stars. To make up for Oh’s exit, this season Grey’s promoted Caterina Scorsone — who plays Derek’s sister, Amelia, and co-starred on Private Practice — to series regular. Kelly McCreary, who plays Meredith’s half sister and Richard’s daughter, also was promoted to regular after making a shocking entrance in the season-10 finale.
Grey’s always has weathered the storm of cast departures by refilling its ranks with new intern classes. While Charles and Ferrer came and went, co-stars Jerrika Hinton (Stephanie) and Camilla Luddington (Jo) both were promoted to regular ahead of season 10. The series currently is casting new recurring players — including Reign‘s Giacomo Gianniotti — likely as interns, as it looks to form a new class of doctors.
For his part, Dempsey, an avid race-car driver, will remain in business with Grey’s producers ABC Studios, where he has a development deal. The actor has an office on the Prospect Studios lot where Grey’s is filmed and already is working with producing partner/manager Joannie Burstein and senior vp production Ben Tierney on a racing drama for SundanceTV.