Grey's Anatomy

Why Every Main Character Left Grey’s Anatomy

Grey's Anatomy has said goodbye to a bunch of its main characters over the years, and here's why each of them left the show.

Grey’s Anatomy has seen many of its main characters go, with many being killed off and others being given a more uplifting ending, and the behind-the-scenes reasons for their departures have all been different. The medical drama genre has seen a number of popular TV shows for decades, and one that continues its run and doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon is Grey’s Anatomy. Created by Shonda Rhimes, Grey’s Anatomy premiered on ABC in 2005 and has been unstoppable, even though its quality has decreased over the years and its most popular characters are now gone.

Following the basic premise of medical dramas, Grey’s Anatomy focuses on the lives of surgical interns, residents, and attendings as they juggle their professional and personal lives, which often overlap and create a lot of drama. The series is led by Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), who the audience has seen go from intern to head of general surgery at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, though not without a heavy dose of drama and many tragedies. Meredith’s journey began alongside those of other beloved characters, like George O’Malley (T.R. Knight) and Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), but as Grey’s Anatomy has been going on for years, many popular main characters have already left the show.

Greys’ Anatomy has become known for not being the best at handling the departure of its most popular characters and for the many behind-the-scenes controversies it has been involved in, of which many have resulted in main actors leaving the show. Of course, not every actor has left Grey’s Anatomy due to scandals and issues with Rhimes and the producers, with many of them simply choosing to explore other acting opportunities and leave the hospital behind. Here’s why every main character left in Grey’s Anatomy.

Isaiah Washington’s Preston Burke – Season 3

Isaiah Washington played Preston Burke, the Head of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Seattle Grace Hospital. Burke was in a relationship with Cristina Yang and got engaged, but he left her on their wedding day and quit immediately after, leaving Grey’s Anatomy in season 3. Burke returned in season 10 to offer Cristina his spot at the medical research institute he founded in Switzerland, which she accepted. Washington’s departure from Grey’s Anatomy was involved in a lot of controversy, as it was the result of a lot of on-set drama with his co-stars, most notably an argument with Patrick Dempsey where he used a homophobic slur, presumably directed to or in reference to T.R. Knight.

Kate Walsh’s Addison Montogomery – Season 3

Addison Montgomery was the head of neonatal surgery and obstetrics and gynecology, and Derek Shepherd’s (Patrick Dempsey) ex-wife who had an affair with his best friend, Mark Sloan (Eric Dane). Addison left Grey’s Anatomy in season 3 to star in the spinoff TV series Private Practice, and she returned for a couple of episodes in season 18. Walsh left Grey’s Anatomy to star in Private Practice, which came to an end in 2013 after six seasons, but as mentioned above, she briefly returned to Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital.

Brooke Smith’s Erica Hahn – Season 5

Erica Hahn was a cardiothoracic surgeon at Seattle Grace and a long-time rival of Preston Burke. She got involved with Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), but their relationship was complicated and didn’t last long as Callie was still figuring her sexuality out. Hahn’s departure from Grey’s Anatomy was very abrupt, as she simply quit, got into her car, and left. Smith’s departure was ABC’s decision, as studio execs were not comfortable with where Hahns’ relationship with Callie was going, and some reportedly didn’t even like the character.

T.R. Knight’s George O’Malley – Season 6

T.R. Knight’s George O’Malley was one of Meredith’s fellow interns in Grey’s Anatomy, and he quickly became a fan favorite. George struggled to find his path, and he suddenly decided to join the U.S. Army in Iraq. Richard Webber gave him his last day off so he could spend time with his family, but on his way home, he jumped in front of a bus to save a woman’s life, but he was left severely injured and disfigured. George was unrecognizable, and it wasn’t until he traced “007” on Meredith’s hand that they knew who the mysterious patient was. George’s brain swelled during surgery and was later declared brain dead. Knight’s departure was due to a “gradual breakdown of communication” and some behind-the-scenes drama, as Rhimes reportedly discouraged him from coming out and Knight wasn’t comfortable with where George’s story was going.

Katherine Heigl’s Izzie Stevens – Season 6

Izzie Stevens was also one of the interns whose journey began alongside Meredith’s in Grey’s Anatomy season 1. Izzie was diagnosed with cancer in season 5 and eventually recovered, but she was fired sometime later after giving the wrong dosage of medicine to a patient. Izzie left Grey’s Anatomy in season 6, moving to Seattle to start a new life and sending divorce papers to Alex Karev (Justin Chambers). Heigl’s departure from Grey’s Anatomy was one of the most controversial, and it all began when she declined to put her name forward for consideration at the Emmy Awards, saying she hadn’t been given enough material to warrant a nomination. This, along with reports of Heigl being very difficult to work with, led to her departure.

Chyler Leigh’s Lexie Grey – Season 8

Lexie Grey was Meredith’s half-sister, and she joined Grey’s Anatomy in season 3. Lexie’s death was one of the most tragic ones in the show’s history, as it was a result of one of the most traumatic events in the series: the plane crash. Lexie was crushed by a piece of the plane, injuring her pelvis, legs, and left arm, and died minutes after being found but not before saying goodbye to Mark Sloan. Leigh’s decision to leave Grey’s Anatomy wasn’t rooted on behind-the-scenes drama, as she simply decided it was time to close Lexie’s arc and spend more time with her family.

Eric Dane’s Mark Sloan – Season 9

Mark Sloan was the head of plastic surgery at Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital, and just like Lexie, he died as a result of injuries from the plane crash. Cristina did her best to help Mark until they were rescued, but in Grey’s Anatomy season 9 premiere episode, Mark was on life support, and as determined by his will, the machines were turned off. Eric Dane left Grey’s Anatomy because he was interested in other projects, but Mark Sloan became one of many characters who were killed off.

Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang – Season 10

Cristina Yang was also an intern alongside Meredith, and she became one of the most important characters in Grey’s Anatomy as she was Meredith’s best friend and “person”. Cristina’s time to leave Seattle and the series came when Burke offered her a job as the head of the hospital he founded in Switzerland, and as she had always been fiercely competitive, focused, and ambitious, she couldn’t let this opportunity pass. Oh had been thinking about leaving the show for at least a year, as she felt it was time to let Cristina go.

Patrick Dempsey’s Derek Shepherd – Season 11

One of the most shocking and heartbreaking deaths in Grey’s Anatomy was Derek Shepherd’s, as he and Meredith were the show’s main couple. After a lot of trouble in their marriage, Derek decided to move back to Seattle from DC, but on his way to DC to resign, he got into a car accident. Derek couldn’t be saved, and he was removed from life support. Dempsey’s decision to leave Grey’s Anatomy was a combination of him feeling it was time to leave the show and on-set conflicts with Rhimes, Pompeo, and many other cast members.

Sandra Ramirez’s Callie Torres – Season 12

Callie Torres was the head of Orthopedic Surgery, but Grey’s Anatomy paid more attention to her personal life, as she was in an on-again-off-again relationship with Mark Sloan, got involved with Erica Hahn, and married and later divorced Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw), though that wasn’t the end of their relationship. Callie moved to New York with her and Mark’s daughter, Sofia, and left Grey’s Anatomy in season 12, with Ramirez’s decision based on feeling it was time to leave.

Jessica Capshaw’s Arizona Robbins – Season 14

Arizona Robbins was the Head of Pediatric Surgery and one of the “Seattle Grace Five”, as she was one of the survivors of the plane crash. Arizona left Grey’s Anatomy in season 14 after her daughter, Sofia, moved back to Seattle, but she was deeply unhappy and missed Callie, so Arizona decided to move to New York so Sofia could be close to her and Callie. As for why Capshaw left Grey’s Anatomy, the network reportedly wanted to go in a different creative direction, so Arizona’s time had to come to an end.

Justin Chambers’ Alex Karev – Season 16

Alex Karev’s departure is one of Grey’s Anatomy’s most controversial ones – he wasn’t killed off, but his ending took many, many steps back. Alex went to Iowa to supposedly help his mom but that wasn’t true, and he told his wife, Jo, that he was “going through something” before he stopped answering her calls. It was later revealed that Alex had reconnected with Izzie and learned she had twins thanks to frozen embryos, meaning they were Alex’s children. Alex decided to move in with her and their kids, and so he left Seattle. Chambers left Grey’s Anatomy to diversify his acting roles, and it’s unknown if Karev will ever return.

Giacomo Gianniotti’s Andrew DeLuca – Season 17

Andrew Deluca was one of Meredith’s love interests and one of the most beloved characters in Grey’s Anatomy. Deluca was in a constant battle with his mental health, and it deteriorated in season 16, to the point where Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) didn’t believe him when he told her about a patient who was the victim of human trafficking. Deluca had a heroic death as he was stabbed while investigating that human trafficking case. Gianniotti’s departure was a network decision.

Jesse Williams’ Jackson Avery – Season 17

Jackson Avery joined the hospital as a result of the merger with Mercy West and became head of plastic surgery. Avery left in Grey’s Anatomy season 17 as he decided to make a change through his family’s foundation after facing severe racial inequity. Jesse Williams explained he decided to leave Grey’s Anatomy because he began to feel “increasingly safe, protected, insulated”, so he moved on to different roles.

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