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TODAY exclusive: Isaiah Washington speaks about his 'Grey's Anatomy' firing in new book

The actor who famously played the medical drama’s original “cardio god,” Dr. Preston Burke, comments on his exit early on in the series in a new unauthorized book coming out Tuesday.
GREY S ANATOMY
Isaiah Washington played Dr. Preston Burke during the first three seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy,” and his firing from the show is detailed in a new tell-all book out this week.Frank Ockenfels / Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

As “Grey’s Anatomy” enters its 18th season this fall, fans of the ABC medical drama can read dramatic details about what allegedly went on behind the scenes in past seasons in a new book by Lynette Rice called “How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey's Anatomy,” out Tuesday. Excerpts about Patrick Dempsey and Katherine Heigl’s respective exits from the show have been detailed in early excerpts, and now TODAY can exclusively share another chapter titled “‘He’s Gone. I’m Free’ Or, How Isaiah Washington Brought Shame to Seattle Grace,” in which cast and crew discuss the controversial firing of the actor who brought Dr. Preston Burke to life.

ABC declined to comment. Representatives for Shondaland, Washington and his co-star Patrick Dempsey did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Some titles of the staff interviewed were added by TODAY for clarity. Obscenities were also redacted by TODAY.

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Isaiah Washington’s interpretation of the stoic and fearless Preston Burke was a master class in TV acting. The Texas-born actor—who had built a sizable résumé of film and TV roles before joining Grey’s Anatomy—was both unpredictable and likable, extremely intimidating and sexy as hell. It’s no wonder that in 2006, the then forty-two-year-old actor was named one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People. Behind the scenes, Washington was considered a generous colleague who was a pleasure to be around.

Harry Werksman (writer): He brought real intensity to the character of Burke. He did a lot of research on what it means to be a cardiothoracic surgeon and what a cardiothoracic surgeon goes through.

He very much inhabited that role. There’s an old joke: Up in heaven, there are people standing in line for lunch in a cafeteria and the doors burst open and the person goes right to the front of the line and grabs his food. And everyone’s like, “Oh, is that God?” And they’re like, “No, that’s a surgeon.” He embodied that.

Eric Buchman (writer): The one actor no one ever tensed up around was Isaiah. He would look at his script and he was so respectful of the work. He would circle the punctuation, make sure he got the punctuation correct.

Brooke Smith (Dr. Erica Hahn): I remember Isaiah saying, “I’d been told that you were a powerhouse, so I really prepared for your arrival.” That was funny. I liked Isaiah. I didn’t have any problems with him. I thought he was a great actor.

Nicole Rubio (script supervisor): I could watch him for hours. He was well prepared, a delight to have on set.

Marty Carrillo: Isaiah loved the crew. He never got mad. He was great with us. The actors all have their own thing with themselves and, you know, we all just sit back and watch and let them go off and do their thing. We just sit there and laugh and go, “Come on, we’re already in the tenth, thirteenth hour. Are you going to still go on about it?”

Rob Corn (executive producer): From a director’s standpoint, Isaiah was always professional. He, like Sandra, was always looking to make things better.

Shonda Rhimes (series creator): They were one of the most riveting relationships I have ever seen on television. They were iconic for a lot of people, and Burke was a different kind of Black man than had been seen on television before, and Cristina was a different kind of woman than had been seen on television before. I think that people really loved them together, as damaging as that relationship was for both of them.

But something may have been boiling under the surface for Washington. The show’s long hours and frenetic pace were constantly at odds with his professionalism.

Source Close to Washington: At least early on, it was not well organized or well run. On a lot of shows a showrunner would say, “Okay, you’ve got two scenes; come in the morning and we’ll get your scenes out of the way so you can go.” But Isaiah would sit there all day. Everyone would sit around in their trailers going crazy. You’re sitting around bored. You can’t really take a nap because you’ve got to be fresh because someone can come in and say, “Hey, you’re on now!” You can’t be, like, half asleep. That had a lot to do with what went down on the set.

Kate Burton (Dr. Ellis Grey): Everything went a little bit haywire behind the camera. I wasn’t in every episode, so it was a little bit like returning to high school and you’re like the older teacher. I’d be like, “How’s everybody doing?” I tried to just listen and nod my head. Of course, it was very interesting, and some very interesting things came out of it in terms of how you talk to people, what are appropriate things to say, and what are inappropriate things to say.

Case in point: In the late hours of October 9, 2006, Washington was growing impatient on set because Dempsey was late to arrive for a scene that was taking place in Meredith’s house. When he finally did show up, Washington lost his temper.

Eric Buchman: Whatever happened between him and Patrick, that was not something that I think anyone in the writers’ room ever sensed was in the works.

James D. Parriott (executive producer): One of the reasons why the meltdown happened was that it was a night shoot. Everybody was tired and wanted to go home.

Mark Wilding (writer): It was my episode. I think one of them had been late to set one day and the other one then decided to pay him back by being late himself. Then it sort of exploded. They got into an arguing match, and then before you know it they were physically fighting. I was standing there in video village. I’m, like, six feet four inches. I’m bigger than both of them. But I didn’t really jump in right away because I’m like, I don’t know if I want to get involved.

Harry Werksman: Patrick Dempsey would show up exactly the moment he was due on set. One of his favorite lines was, “Livin’ the dream. Let’s shoot this.” Isaiah had been there early. He was always there earlier than he needed to be. That was part of his process. And Isaiah, for whatever reason that day, just took that the wrong way and he went after Patrick. I guess he felt disrespected that he and the crew had been waiting. He went after Patrick, pushed him up against the wall, and said, “You can’t talk to me the way you talk to that little f----- T.R.”

Marty Carrillo: I was behind the set and I heard the scuffle going on. I heard, “You son of a b----!” And then the f-word. Everyone knew T.R. was gay. For some reason, Isaiah just lost it and pinned Patrick up against the wall. You could see Isaiah’s pupils go wide, like, “What did I do?” It was quiet. Everyone had to leave the set.

Mark Wilding: Katie Heigl did jump in, so did Jim Pickens, and broke them up. Words were exchanged. I remember talking to my wife and saying, “We just had this crazy fight on set, but I think it’s all fine now.” Everybody went to Shonda’s office and worked things out. People yell, that’s for sure, but actual physical stuff is very rare. I’d never seen that before. On the other hand, you’re also family. You’re there for twelve, fourteen hours a day. People are people. Things are gonna explode occasionally. Also, when you’re doing twenty-four episodes of TV a year, occasionally tempers flare and nerves get frayed.

Harry Werksman: We found out almost immediately what was going on because people were coming over to the writers’ office and being, like, “Oh my God, you won’t believe what’s happened.”

Mark Wilding: I didn’t think it was going to leak to the press at all, because the fight happened in Meredith’s house. There weren’t extras around. If it had been in the hospital setting, there would’ve been extras around, and who knows then? Extras can run to a tabloid and get paid, I don’t know, $2,000 for the story. In this case, I think there was somebody in the Grey’s production office who was secretly working for the tabloids, and that’s how it got out.

Source Close to Washington: I think it had less to do with homophobia and more to do with his own intimidating nature. It was more about his personality than it was about any homophobia or perceived homophobia. Isaiah was always the first to tell you that he played a gay guy in a Spike Lee movie. He certainly could be a butthead and aggressive, but I don’t think the guy was homophobic, truly.

Harry Werksman: ABC took it fairly seriously. A day or two later, the entire cast, crew, and writers’ room had to do sensitivity training and a course on sexual harassment.

Eric Buchman: There was this initial incident and things got downplayed. It seemed to almost resolve itself, because my impression was that the issues among the cast were never as bad as things were initially played out to be. What ultimately sealed the fate for Isaiah was when things came up again.

At the 2007 Golden Globe Awards three months later, Grey’s Anatomy took the prize for Best Television Series—Drama. That was the first time the cast had appeared in front of the press since the fight between Washington and Dempsey, so reporters lodged questions about the incident and its antigay slur. Initially, Washington discussed it by revealing that he had advocated for making Burke come out as gay, as a result of the fight: “I love gay. I wanted to be gay. Please let me be gay.” But after the awards show, the question came up again, and Washington moved to the microphone and declared, “No, I did not call T.R. a f------. Never happened.” After the party, Heigl, speaking to Access Hollywood, said, “I’m going to be really honest right now, he needs to just not speak in public. Period. I’m not okay with it.”

T.R. Knight (Dr. George O’Malley): I was floored. How often is someone going to stick their neck out publicly for someone, at the risk of getting slapped in some way, shape, or form? That doesn’t happen! But she’s fierce and honest and a great friend.

ABC immediately did damage control by releasing a statement: “We dealt with the original situation in October, and thought the issue resolved. Therefore, we are greatly dismayed that Mr. Washington chose to use such inappropriate language at the Golden Globes, language that he himself deemed ‘unfortunate’ in his previous public apology.” Washington apologized again and even met with members of GLAAD: “I know the power of words, especially those that demean. I realize that by using one filled with disrespect I have hurt more than T.R. and my colleagues. With one word, I’ve hurt everyone who has struggled for the respect so many of us take for granted.” He even went on to win an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series. “The first time I was up here I felt deserving of something,” he told the crowd. “This time, I feel privileged.” The feeling was short-lived.

Harry Werksman: It’s like, Okay, he’s got to go. He’s gone. The train had left the station at that point.

Isaiah Washington (Dr. Preston Burke): I did everything that the producers and the network asked me to do. I came back under great stress, and thought I was doing the job I was hired to do. I thought that was going to speak for my future at Grey’s, but apparently that wasn’t the same vision that the network and studio had for me.

Washington’s final episode, titled “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?,” aired May 17, 2007.

Isaiah Washington: I can apologize only so many times. I can accept only so much responsibility. I just hope people in the industry can understand that it’s a horrible misunderstanding, what transpired with our show, and it was blown out of proportion.

Former ABC Studios Executive: He was a fabulous actor. He never got the true credit he deserves. He had his personality issues. I’m not hiding that he’s been in unnecessary fights. The gay community never forgave him. But he paid an unnecessarily large penalty for this.

Isaiah Washington: Dr. Burke [was] probably the greatest challenge I ever had. I studied the medical world extensively. I gave it everything I had.