When Derek Shepherd met his end via a car accident on the 11th season of Grey’s Anatomy, fans were shocked. After all, Patrick Dempsey seemed to be just as crucial to the medical drama as star Ellen Pompeo, and Meredith and Derek (or MerDer, if you’re in that deep) were the show’s central romance. Now, thanks to a new book about the making of the TV staple, How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy by journalist Lynette Rice, some new information has come to light about the behind-the-scenes drama that led to Dempsey’s 2015 exit from the show. Read on to find out why one executive producer said the star was “terrorizing the set” and how his relationship with his colleagues reportedly deteriorated.
About to begin its 18th season, Grey’s Anatomy has been on the air since 2005. In those early days, Pompeo’s Meredith Grey was a surgical intern who starts an affair with neurosurgeon Derek, known by Meredith and her friends as “McDreamy.” In the excerpt from Rice’s oral history published by The Hollywood Reporter, several members of the show’s creative team explained that Derek wasn’t supposed to be a realistic character but a perfect, ideal man.
“There’s a projection [of him] onto me when you come in contact with fans, certainly with the younger and older fans,” Dempsey said in his interview for the book. “There is a certain amount of expectation.”
Several of his coworkers agreed that Dempsey lived up to the expectation, calling him “gracious,” “charismatic,” and “personable.” Actor Brooke Smith even noted that Dempsey stood up for her when her character, Erica Hahn, was written off of the show.
Producer Jeannine Renshaw told Rice that Pompeo would get visibly “frustrated” with Dempsey when he would complain about the hours he was required to be on set, especially when she was often needed there even longer.
“When I brought it up to Patrick, I would say, ‘Look around you. These people have been here since six thirty a.m.’ He would go, ‘Oh, yeah.’ He would get it,” Renshaw said. “It’s just that actors tend to see things from their own perspective. He’s like a kid. He’s so high energy and would go, ‘What’s happening next?’ He literally goes out of his skin, sitting and waiting. He wants to be out driving his race car or doing something fun. He’s the kid in class who wants to go to recess.”
Rice writes that things were so complicated with the actor that former executive producer James D. Parriott was asked to return for Season 11, “to serve as a veritable Dempsey whisperer.”
“There were HR issues,” Parriott said of Dempsey. “It wasn’t sexual in any way. He 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. I think he was just done with the show. He didn’t like the inconvenience of coming in every day and working. He and Sage Young Shonda [Rhimes] were at each other’s throats.”
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“A lot of the complaining … I think Shonda finally witnessed it herself, and that was the final straw,” Renshaw explained. “Shonda had to say to the network, ‘If he doesn’t go, I go.’ Nobody wanted him to leave, because he was the show.”
According to Parriott, the creative team and ABC even tried to figure out a way to keep Dempsey on the show but separate him from the rest of the cast, especially Pompeo. One idea was that Derek would stay in washington, D.C., where Derek was for part of Season 11. But the story and production logistics proved to be too challenging.
Dempsey, for his part, wasn’t shocked by the news that Derek would be killed off or that he’d no longer be a cast member.
“It was just a natural progression,” he said. “And the way everything was unfolding in a very organic way, it was like, ‘Okay! This is obviously the right time.’ Things happened very quickly. We were like, ‘Oh, this is where it’s going to go.’
“There was no goodbye party, no goodbye cake,” Rice writes of the rainy night during which Dempsey filmed his last scene. Several other actors on the show weren’t even aware that he was completing his run as Derek.
Caterina Scorsone, who plays Derek’s sister Amelia, said, “I didn’t get to say goodbye to Patrick when he left…When he was suddenly gone from the show, we didn’t have that closure, so I got to play it out.”
The director of the episode in which Derek dies, Rob Hardy, said that he didn’t see cast members coming to the set to see Dempsey off. Pompeo was there for his last scenes, but it still wasn’t a love fest. “We were in the Patrick world, and then Ellen came, and there was definitely a lot of emotion that both of them had individually…not necessarily together,” Hardy explained.
Despite all the water under the bridge, Dempsey did make a triumphant return to Grey’s last season. And no, he wasn’t cast as Derek’s long-lost twin brother. Meredith contracts COVID in Season 17, which causes her to be in a coma. And in a dreamscape, she encounters many of the show’s deceased, including her late love.
“We all cried at the beginning, and we hugged each other,” he said of filming his last scene.
He also left the door open to revisit the character again.
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