Katherine Heigl was a founding cast member of “Grey’s Anatomy” and one of the stars who became an early fan favorite on the long-running medical drama.
She was one half of an on-screen romance to remember, the first actor to win an Emmy for their work on the series and then, suddenly, after six seasons, she was gone.
But she certainly wasn’t forgotten by fans — nor were the controversies surrounding her exit.
Now, 11 years after Heigl last walked the halls of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital (or Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital, as she knew it at the time), those fans are learning her perspective on the events surrounding her unexpected leave, from her alleged bad blood with show creator Shonda Rhimes to what some perceived as her own lack of gratitude for having a role like Dr. Izzie Stevens.
As noted in an excerpt from Lynette Rice’s “How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey's Anatomy,” first published in the Daily Telegraph and verified by TODAY, in many ways, Heigl’s exit story actually begins one year after that 2007 Emmy win, when she made the decision to step out of the next season’s Emmy race.
In a statement to reporters at the time, Heigl justified it, saying, “I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination and, in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I withdrew my name from contention.”
But what she saw as an explanation, others took as a thinly veiled attack to the show’s writers and creator.
“I thought I was doing the right thing,” the 42-year-old notes in the book. “And I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t snubbing the Emmys. The night I won was the highlight of my career. I just was afraid that if I said, ‘No comment,’ it was going to come off like I couldn’t be bothered (to enter the race).”
Though looking back, she added, “I could have more gracefully said that without going into a private work matter. It was between me and the writers. I ambushed them, and it wasn’t very nice or fair.”
It was then that Heigl gained a reputation as being "difficult," diva-like and ungrateful for a job many actors would consider enviable. But it was also then that she and her husband, singer-songwriter Josh Kelley, adopted their first child, and she found her interests piqued far more by life off-screen, as a mother.
“I started a family, and it changed everything,” she said. “It changed my desire to work full-time. I went on family leave and just got to be a (mom), and it changed my whole perspective… That was really the turning point. So before I was due back, I spoke again to Shonda about wanting to leave. Then I waited at home until I was given the formal OK that I was off the show.”
But the buzz at the time was that Heigl, wanting to focus more on a big screen career, simply never showed up for the next season of the show.
“The rumors that I refused to return were totally untrue,” she insisted.
And there’s one part of it all that still stings for her.
“The ‘ungrateful’ thing bothers me the most,” she revealed. “And that is my fault. I allowed myself to be perceived that way. So much about living life, to me, is about humility and gratitude. And I’ve tried very hard to have those qualities and be that person, and I’m just so disappointed in myself that I allowed it to slip. Of course I’m grateful. How can I not be?”
Then again, Heigl knows that, when it comes to women in show business, it can be hard to control those perceptions, regardless of what's said.
As she told Rice, “In this town, women who don’t just snap and say, ‘OK, yessir, yes, ma’am’ start to get a reputation for being difficult. I’ve decided it’s not worth it to me to be pushed around so much.”