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Heigl takes a 5-episode leave from ‘Grey’s’

The actress will be shooting the film “Life as We Know It,” and her break will overlap with Ellen Pompeo’s maternity leave.
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

Katherine Heigl won’t have to worry about putting in long hours on the “Grey’s Anatomy” set for much longer. Sources confirm to me exclusively that the actress is taking a five-episode hiatus from the ABC drama to go shoot the Greg Berlanti-directed romantic comedy “Life as We Know It.”

ABC and “Grey’s” producers have accommodated Heigl’s busy film schedule before, but this is the first time they have given her permission to leave the show for an extended period of time. I’m told Heigl’s absence will be explained on screen, although it’s not clear what prompts Izzie to take off. (Marital trouble with Alex? A trip home to see mom? A Denny sighting in the Caribbean?)

The fact that Heigl was granted such a lengthy leave of absence is surprising in light of the public tongue-lashing ABC president Stephen McPherson gave her last month for complaining about a 17-hour work day. Also, Heigl’s departure — which starts this month and will kick in on screen around November — will almost certainly overlap with co-star Ellen Pompeo’s maternity leave. Translation: “Grey’s” will be without Izzie and Meredith at the same time!

Of course, “Grey’s” boss Shonda Rhimes told me over the summer that change would be in the air this season. “Eventually, everybody is going to leave the show,” admitted the exec., citing T.R. Knight’s exit and the temporary loss of Pompeo. “So we’re looking at (ways) we can mess with the structure now… Season 6 is about finding the longevity of the show and figuring out if there is a future for this show beyond these characters.”

Not so coincidentally, “Grey’s” recently announced it was adding three new doctors to its rotation: Nora Zehetner, Robert Baker and Jesse Williams are joining the cast as recurring residents/medical professionals.

Thoughts? Worried you won’t recognize Seattle Grace this season without George, Mer and (now) Izzie? Or are you psyched that this probably means more screen time for your other favorites? Sound off here!

(Additional reporting by Lynette Rice)