On a rainy night in early April, Patrick Dempsey performed his final scene as Dr. Derek Shepherd and walked off the set of Grey’s Anatomy for the last time. There were no tears, no goodbye party, no last-minute dash to the costume department to retrieve his favorite pair of scrubs. It was, as Dempsey would describe it, like “just another workday.”
“It was very quiet,” Dempsey, 49, says two weeks later while sitting in his favorite restaurant, Feed Body & Soul, in Venice Beach, California. “It was very poetic. I got in my car, got in rush-hour traffic, and two hours later I was home.”
As fans—or anyone with a Twitter account—learned, the April 23 episode of Grey’s was the end of the road for McDreamy. His character’s death wasn’t exactly a surprise. Dempsey had been absent for six episodes this season—the first time in the show’s 11 seasons that he hadn’t appeared in every episode. In the past few weeks, legions of fans have been turning to social media to warn ABC and creator Shonda Rhimes that they’re playing with fire by even teasing such a mammoth development. “If something will happen to Derek I don’t know if I can still look forward to more episodes,” wrote one fan. Another vowed on Dempsey’s Facebook page, “I have never missed one episode but I swear if [Rhimes] kills you off I’m done.”
Dempsey is no stranger to his rabid female fan base—he even suggests that killing Derek may not be in the drama’s best interest. “Shepherd is a beloved character. People don’t want to lose him,” insists the actor. “He’s been in their lives for over 10 years.” But it turns out that he didn’t really have a say in the abrupt decision. “Things happened very quickly. We were like, ‘Oh, this is where it’s going to go,’ ” Dempsey says with a blank stare. “I think it will be very shocking for fans, the way it happens. It’s really going to be powerful. I’m anxious to see what the response will be.”
Killing a main character isn’t an unprecedented move, especially when it involves a central actor who wants to leave a popular show. Downton Abbey offed Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) in a car crash in 2013. The Good Wife pulled off a spectacular shocker a year later, gunning down Will Gardner (Josh Charles) in the courtroom. But those deaths were predetermined; there was no time left on the actors’ deals. Dempsey, like his costar Ellen Pompeo, signed a two-year contract extension in 2014 that would keep Mer-Der on the series through 2016. If killing Dempsey’s character in the first year of his two-year pact was the plan all along, neither ABC nor Dempsey is saying so.
The network would not comment on the terms of Dempsey’s contract, and when asked to explain what led to his departure, he answers haltingly. “It just sort of unfolded in a very organic way,” he says, sitting very still. “I don’t remember the date. It was not in the fall. Maybe February or March.” He reiterates: “It happened very quickly.” Did he know there would be so many hints about t his demise? “There wasn’t a lot of discussion,” he says. Was he surprised? “No, not really. It was just a natural progression. And the way everything was unfolding in a very organic way, it was like, okay! This was obviously the right time. And then it was a question of…” He trails off. “That’s a question for Shonda.”
But the show’s creator is not talking. Rhimes would only issue the following statement to EW: “I never imagined saying goodbye to our ‘McDreamy’—then again, none of us here at Grey’s Anatomy imagined any of the many journeys this show has taken us on. Now, Meredith and I are about to enter uncharted territory as we head into this new chapter of her life.”
When other Grey’s cast members were asked to speak about their longtime costar, Chandra Wilson (Miranda Bailey) said to EW via email, “Patrick Dempsey will forever be known as Grey’s Anatomy’s McDreamy. Derek Shepherd is a permanent part of television history, and the Meredith/Derek relationship is a major story point which our audiences have cared deeply about for years.” Meanwhile, Pompeo and Justin Chambers (Alex Karev) were unavailable for interviews. Regardless, Dempsey insists he remains in a “very good” place with his alter-ego wife, Pompeo. In fact, the only time he displays any raw emotion about leaving the show is when he’s asked to describe what made Mer-Der so irresistible. “Beautiful chemistry,” he whispers, his eyes welling with tears. “It’s magic. We’re like a married couple. It’s 10 years, and it was magic from the beginning.”
His colleagues’ silence is par for the course considering the amount of backstage drama that has long plagued the Grey’s set, like when Isaiah Washington used a homophobic slur against costar T.R. Knight, and when Katherine Heigl dropped out of an Emmy race in 2008 saying she “did not feel that I was given the material…to warrant a nomination.” (Rhimes told a media outlet last October that there were “no Heigls” in her Scandal cast, and that she has developed a “no a- -holes” policy, because “I don’t put up with bulls - - - or nasty people. I don’t have time for it.”)
This season it was Dempsey’s turn under the microscope. In November he went on an unprecedented six-episode hiatus amid rumors of more on-set tumult. “They tried to keep it secret as best they could,” says Dempsey, declining to elaborate other than to say he used some of the time to race cars in Brazil. Not long after, it was announced that he was splitting from his wife of 15 years, Jillian.
When asked if his home life has affected his work, Dempsey says, “I’m a professional. You leave your personal life at the door.” But he acknowledges that his shooting schedule took a toll on his three children. “It’s 10 months, 15 hours a day,” he admits. “You never know your schedule, so your kid asks you, ‘What are you doing on Monday?’ and you go, ‘I don’t know,’ because I don’t know my schedule. Doing that for 11 years is challenging…. What I would like to do is focus on not being spread so thin. Those days are over.”
The hours of the job aside, Dempsey still has only effusive praise for Rhimes, who gave him his iconic nickname after watching his performance in the pilot. (“Patrick was seriously the most adorable man we’d ever seen on camera,” she told Oprah Winfrey in 2006. “We’d watch the monitor and think, ‘Look at his dreamy eyes!’ ”) And though Dempsey had worked steadily for two decades before joining Grey’s in 2005, with major roles in movies like Can’t Buy Me Love and Sweet Home Alabama, taking on the role of Dr. Shepherd was, as he calls it, “life-changing.”
For McDreamy fans, the good news is Dempsey won’t stay out of work for long. He already has two small-screen projects in the works: a drama called The Limit for SundanceTV that he describes as “Mad Men in the racing world in the 1960s” and a travelogue spy thriller called Fodors. Even more important to Dempsey, he’ll have plenty of time for racing. A bona fide pro with a sizable roster of sponsors, Dempsey was headed to Dubai to train after talking to EW (which meant he was out of the country when his final episode aired).
“I’m focusing now on developing and racing and being a father to my children,” declares Dempsey. “Those are my priorities.” As for acting, “I would commit to a show that is 10 to 12 episodes, but 24 again…I don’t know if I would do that. It’s a very hard life. It’s financially rewarding, but there comes a point where, how much is enough, really?”
Still, he knows that he was lucky to play Dr. Shepherd for as long as he did, and booking another prominent role may not be that easy. “It’s remarkable to be a working actor, and then on top of that to be on a show that’s visible. And then on top of that to be a phenomenal show that’s known around the world, and -playing a character who is beloved around the world…. It’s very heady. You never know whether you will work again and have success again,” he admits.
He’s looking forward to seeing what else is out there. “I want to try something different. But will I be allowed to do something different?” he continues, his face a mixture of fear and anticipation. “Is Derek so identifiable that I can’t go on and be someone else? That will be the challenge. To see if people embrace me as someone else.” ■