LOS ANGELES — Starring on one of TV’s hottest series is an actor’s dream, and Isaiah Washington fought hard to keep his role as Dr. Preston Burke on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
But after twice using an anti-gay slur, Washington was doomed to lose the biggest role of his career because of timing, a track record of volatile behavior and pressure within the industry.
While series creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes wept when she got on the phone last Thursday to tell Washington he was out, the decision was a coolly calculated move by Rhimes’ bosses at the network and ABC Television Studios.
His “pattern of behavior” represented a potential liability that was too much risk for the Walt Disney Co.-owned companies, a source close to the production said. The source was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
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The operation to remove Washington, 43, was quick and neat. The studio declined to exercise his contract option for another season — Washington would have earned about $2.7 million in salary — and he was dumped shortly after the May finale.
With Dr. Burke conveniently written out of the show in the last episode, the move had to have been planned for some time.
The decision was made by executives including ABC Studios President Mark Pedowitz, ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson and Disney-ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney. ABC and the studio declined comment this week, but Washington said he was “saddened” by the outcome.
“I can only apologize so many times. I can only accept so much responsibility,” he told EW.com in an interview published Wednesday. “... Isaiah will go on and do what I love to do. And I have to go about the business of letting people know what’s written about me is not the truth.”
Gay rights leader Neil G. Giuliano said Washington was caught up in changing attitudes toward anti-gay vitriol — the same backlash felt by Ann Coulter after she derided John Edwards with the same f-word Washington employed.
“All of this is crescendoing, with people saying, ‘Enough is enough,”’ said Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
One activist blames ‘gay Mafia’
Hollywood’s image as an unbiased haven for gays is overstated, Giuliano said. But he did field outraged calls from producers, writers and actors — both gay and straight — after Washington’s remarks. Giuliano said he told the callers to make waves at the networks, and “I have good reason to believe most of those folks, who are not shy, made their feelings known.”
One black gay activist sees the lobbying far differently. Jasmyne Cannick, a friend of Washington’s, said the case reflected a division between Hollywood’s powerful white gays and lesbians and those who are minorities.
“The ones calling for (Washington’s) head are what I refer to as the gay Mafia,” Cannick said.
There may have been more behind the decision than intolerant language. Bryan Birge, who was working as a costumer in 1997 on the police drama “High Incident,” said Washington erupted in anger on the set and then grabbed him after Birge asked him to remove a magazine from his pocket for an upcoming scene.
“It was bizarre,” Birge told The Associated Press. “The guy is less than easy to be around.” Washington, a Houston native who served in the Air Force, had campaigned vigorously to redeem his image. He apologized publicly, to his colleagues and to GLAAD. He filmed a public service announcement for GLAAD and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. He made a publicly announced donation to a favorite cause, help for the African nation of Sierra Leone.
“We did everything that was asked of us” by ABC, said his publicist, Howard Bragman.
Denied slur, then used it again
Washington was undone by a spat last October with co-star Patrick Dempsey in which he used the epithet to refer to fellow cast member T.R. Knight. Washington issued a public apology for his behavior and “unfortunate” use of words, and media attention waned.
But in January, Washington reignited the furor during a backstage interview at the Golden Globes in which he denied having used the slur, then uttered it again.
Gay rights groups that had demanded Washington apologize say they didn’t seek his firing and gained nothing by it. Those who might have jumped to his defense, whether co-stars or those taking interest in the plight of a black actor, were silent or measured in their remarks.
“If he’s being let go because of that incident, I’m not sure the punishment fits the crime,” said Vic Bullock, executive director of the Hollywood bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP has asked ABC for “further clarity,” Bullock said.
Tavis Smiley, the national TV and radio talk-show host and author, said Washington’s words cut too deep.
“As a society we are still grappling with the notion of forgiveness and redemption,” Smiley said in an e-mailed comment. “What this incident shows us, not unlike the Don Imus matter, is there is some pain so deep, that an apology, no matter how sincere, just doesn’t suffice.”
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