Fourteen years ago, what is now one of TV’s longest-running shows endured a major scandal during its third season. In 2007, actor Isaiah Washington was fired from Grey’s Anatomy after getting into a fight with a co-star and allegedly calling another co-star the f-slur. Washington, who played surgeon Preston Burke, and his former co-stars have spoken out about what happened many times since, but a new book shares more sides of the story.
An excerpt of the book How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy by Lynette Rice focusing on Washington’s firing was published by Today on Tuesday. In this new oral history, writers, producers, actors, and executives comment on the on-set drama that became even messier when it became news and what led to Washington’s contract not being renewed for another season. Read on to find out what those involved in the story have to say now.
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Washington got into a fight with Patrick Dempsey over being late.
In 2006, reports came out that Washington and Patrick Dempsey had gotten into a physical fight while working on Grey’s Anatomy after Dempsey showed up late to set. It was also reported that Washington had said the f-slur during the fight in reference to co-star T.R. Knight, who is gay, but was not yet out publicly at that point. Washington admitted that he uttered the word but maintained that he did not say it about Knight.
During a 2007 interview with Larry King (via ABC News), Washington said, “I began to say a lot of things I’m not really proud of…I said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to treat me like a b-word or a b-word or the f-word. You can’t treat me this way in front of the crew.'” He continued, “Before this took off in this direction, in terms of sexual orientation, it meant something—it meant, to me, someone who is being weak.”
Crew members have said that Washington pushed Dempsey against a wall.
Several people who were on set the day of the fight commented on the situation for the new Grey’s oral history. Harry Werksman, a writer for the show, said that Dempsey tended to show up right when he was needed on set, while Washington liked to be early, which led to the clash. “Isaiah, for whatever reason that day, just took that the wrong way and he went after Patrick,” Werksman said. “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-slur] T.R.'”
A former network executive blamed Washington’s “personality issues.”
A former ABC executive, who is quoted anonymously in the book, said that Washington’s “personality issues” led to “unnecessary fights” during production.
“He was a fabulous actor,” the executive said. “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.”
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Washington’s relationship with some co-stars deteriorated further after the fight.
As if the physical altercation and Washington’s use of the slur wasn’t enough, the problems didn’t stop there. During the Golden Globes in January 2007, Washington was asked about the fight and said he actually told the writers that he wanted his character to be gay. “I love gay,” he added. “I wanted to be gay. Please let me be gay.”
He also said in an interview at the awards show, “No, I did not call T.R. a [f-slur]. Never happened,” once again saying the word. This led co-star Katherine Heigl to tell Access Hollywood. “I’m going to be really honest right now, he needs to just not speak in public. Period. I’m not okay with it.” Washington attacked Heigl for saying this as recently as last year.
Knight commented on Heigl speaking up for him in the new book, saying, “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.”
Washington was officially off the show as of June 2007.
Washington again apologized after his comments at the Golden Globes, but it was not enough to save his job. ABC released a statement reading, “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 later said in an interview that he thought that racism played a role in his firing.
In How to Save a Life, Washington addressed the incident again. “I can apologize only so many times,” the 58-year-old said. “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.”
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