Friendships betrayed, careers at stake — how will the drama spilling from behind the camera into real life on “Grey’s Anatomy” affect the future of the smash-hit TV series?
Whatever the consequences of actor Isaiah Washington’s use of an anti-gay slur to describe castmate T.R. Knight, the pressure is on series creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes to restore order among the cast of the soapy medical drama.
Millions of advertising dollars for ABC and corporate parent Walt Disney Co. are riding on her ability to keep the show healthy.
On Thursday, ABC chastised Washington for using the term “faggot” about Knight in an on-set dust-up in October with co-star Patrick Dempsey and then using the slur again at this week’s Golden Globes as he denied ever uttering it.
Later Thursday, Washington, who’s gotten hold of the biggest role of his career on “Grey’s Anatomy,” conceded using the invective and issued a heartfelt apology. But it was unclear whether it would mollify Knight or co-star Katherine Heigl, who had leaped to his defense.
A program relies on the executive producer, dubbed a “showrunner,” to set the tone, especially when a crisis hits, said writer-producers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman (“Queer as Folk,” “Sisters”).
“You’re very much in charge, in control, and people look up to you in that way,” said Lipman. “They will follow suit in how you handle it.”
He and Cowen once had to deal with an actor whose public remarks had infuriated fellow cast members, who then snubbed him. The man chose not to return for another season and “frankly, we would have decided that as well,” Cowen said, declining to identify the actor.
The ABC statement, which said it was addressing Washington’s actions but didn’t specify how, came a day after a gay and lesbian advocacy group demanded the actor apologize. He did in his three-paragraph statement Thursday.
“I can also no longer deny to myself that there are issues I obviously need to examine within my own soul, and I’ve asked for help,” the statement said. “... I know a mere apology will not end this, and I intend to let my future actions prove my sincerity.”
Calls seeking comment from Rhimes and Knight were not immediately returned. ABC declined to expand on its statement.
The hit show now in its third season hasn’t so far suffered from his behavior, at least in the ratings: It drew 22 million viewers in the week before the verbal slur was reported last fall, while the episode last week was watched by 23 million.
Morale on the set may be another matter. Washington plays respected surgeon Preston Burke, and Knight is intern George O’Malley; the characters bonded when O’Malley bunked at Burke’s house, and again when Burke helped advise on care for O’Malley’s ill father.
“Only Rhimes and the cast know whether this rift can be mended, if they can go on, or if it can’t be,” Cowen said. “Will an apology suffice, will it make everything OK? If not, then you have to do something else.”
He and Cowen said they wouldn’t presume to offer a course of action, but suggested that dumping a member of a popular ensemble cast could upset the show’s balance.
Keeping any show running efficiently is tough: Producing a season’s worth of hour-long dramas, usually totaling about 22, is akin to turning out more than 10 feature films in under a year.
A showrunner has to have the ability to “really manage their talent and keep them in line,” said Nina Tassler, CBS entertainment president.
Add strife like that on “Grey’s Anatomy” to the mix and the challenge to keep the show from self-destructing can be overwhelming.
“I’ve done two shows for 14 years, and I’ve never had anything like that happen,” said Neal Baer, a longtime executive producer on NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” who previously was with “ER.” “If there’s not respect amongst the cast, crew, writers, producers and directors, it would be very tough to function.”
Producers say serious discord is rare, although another ABC series, “Desperate Housewives,” was made out in the early going to be a hotbed of sparring divas. Creator and executive producer Marc Cherry has called that inaccurate.
It was in October when People magazine reported that Washington and co-star Patrick Dempsey quarreled when Knight was late to a scene and Dempsey insisted on waiting for him.
Washington allegedly referred to Knight, who was not present, with the anti-gay slur. In a statement that followed the story, Washington expressed regret for “the unfortunate use of words” he called “beneath my own personal standards.”
Knight said soon after the incident that he was gay.
Rhimes moved then to defuse the conflict, deeming it “4½ seconds of one day in three years. I feel like we’ve already moved on.”
But this week, in the awards season spotlight, it flared up again.
On the red carpet before the Golden Globes ceremony, Washington, after hearing his wife asked a fashion question that the reporter described as “so gay,” joked, “I love gay. I wanted to be gay. Please let me be gay.”
Later, after the ceremony, Washington was asked backstage about the October incident. “I did not call T.R. a faggot. Never,” he said.
Knight fired back during an appearance the next day on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”: “He referred to me as a faggot. Everyone heard it,” Knight said of the October confrontation between Washington and Dempsey.
Although producer Lipman said he believes those who use the anti-gay epithet deserve strong condemnation, the professional goal for Rhimes and the show now is to look ahead.
“Hopefully, they all know they have something golden and they don’t want it to be destroyed. That’s what a producer would try to do to quell that — say, ‘Listen, we have something good here, we have a lot of talent, and it would be a shame for it be to blown apart by something like this,’ ” he said.