Why Isaiah Washington’s Burke Left In Season 3

Why Isaiah Washington's Burke Left In Season 3

Isaiah Washington’s departure from Grey’s Anatomy season 3 saw Preston Burke leave Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang at the alter after an on-set incident.

In June of 2007, it was announced that Isaiah Washington’s character, Dr. Preston Burke, would not return after Grey’s Anatomy season 3.  The news came as a shock as Washington was a lead character and the show was a huge hit. Grey’s Anatomy is one of the most popular shows in television history, has recently been renewed for its 18th season, and has won four Primetime Emmys. So why did Washington’s character leave Grey’s Anatomy?

Throughout Grey’s Anatomy’s first three seasons, Isaiah Washington played Preston, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Seattle Grace Hospital. While saving dozens of lives on the show, Burke also played boyfriend to Cristina Yang (played by Sandra Oh) and mentor to T. R. Knight’s George O’Malley as well as friend and colleague to the rest of the doctors and residents in the story. Burke’s character and Grey’s Anatomy’s Derek Shepherd (played by Patrick Dempsey) had a particular bond on the show, as both were leaders in their fields of medicine and dating residents (Derek was in a relationship with Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey).

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In Preston Burke’s last episode on Grey’s Anatomy season 3, “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” he and Cristina were about to get married when Cristina had doubts. Burke left her at their wedding, and Cristina returned to Burke’s apartment to find him gone. However, the abrupt end for Burke’s character was not originally in the cards. It came after several months of fallout after a disagreement on set between Washington and fellow actor Patrick Dempsey in which Washington allegedly used a homophobic slur – something he denied was targeted at a fellow cast member.

What Shonda Rhimes Said About Isaiah Washington’s Grey’s Anatomy Exit

Preston Burke Isaiah Washington Greys Anatomy

Preston Burke suddenly leaving Sandra Oh’s Cristina Yang at the altar was quite a shocking ending to the character, and many were curious about the reasoning behind the sudden nature of Isaiah Washington’s exit from Grey’s Anatomy. Bridgerton and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes didn’t often have a lot to say about cast members’ exits, save for her comments about Katherine Heigl. That being said, Washington’s departure was understandably fraught with controversy surrounding the actions that led to his firing by ABC. Surprisingly, Shonda Rhimes didn’t and still doesn’t hold any ill-will towards any of the cast members for leaving Grey’s Anatomy, and Isaiah Washington is included in that. In fact, she praised the chemistry between Oh and Washington. According to Entertainment Weekly, she found their relationship “riveting”, commenting on the relationship they shared up to Isaiah Washington’s character Preston Burke’s exit: “I think that people really loved them together — as damaging as that relationship was for both of them. I think people really loved watching them struggle.” 

While Shonda Rhimes felt no ill will towards Isaiah Washington after his inflammatory comments, she was still at least aware of the weight of his poor choices. In the same interview with EW, she did reference the actor’s on-set behavior and admit that the actor needed to change. Between Grey’s Anatomy season 3 and his reappearance, the actor must’ve done some soul-searching, as he was allowed to be back on the show (if only for a brief appearance). Inventing Anna creator Shonda Rhimes’ full comment can be read below.

“I also want to just be clear that Isaiah is a person that we all love and have loved for a very long time. I feel like there have been a lot of people that have been like, ‘How can you do this?’ And I feel very strongly and fully believe in people’s ability to grow and change and learn from their mistakes and when they know better, to do better. If people don’t think that, over the course of seven years, it’s possible for a human being to change, then there really is no future for the human race at all.”

Isaiah Washington’s Conflict With Patrick Dempsey On Grey’s Anatomy

Isaiah Washington Patrick Dempsey Greys Anatomy

Apparently, Patrick Dempsey was actually the main target of the homophobic slur, as Isaiah Washington and he had a tumultuous on-set relationship. The two were both introduced in Grey’s Anatomy season 1, and their touch-and-go relationships with Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang definitely mirrored each other. However, that doesn’t mean that the two actors got along in any sense. Washington claims that Patrick Dempsey started the argument that lead up to the slur. According to Washington, he felt as though Dr. McDreamy wasn’t treating him with respect and the argument really started over Dempsey’s lateness to set. Dempsey then became angry that Washington made comments about not needing actress Ellen Pompeo and claimed that he can act just fine on his own. Understandably, this made Dempsey more upset. The fight came to a head when Washington used the homophobic slur.

Related: Grey’s Anatomy: Every On-Set Controversy – Timeline Explained

Although Washington denies that the slur was in reference to fellow actor T.R. Knight (who exited Grey’s Anatomy with George’s death in season 6), multiple accounts claim that Washington used a slur linked to Knight’s sexual preferences when arguing with Dempsey. It was subsequently revealed that the pair had a physical altercation on the set leading up to the outburst. Washington later explained (via Larry King Live) that he never called Knight an “F-word” but was telling co-star Dempsey not to treat him like an “F-word.” When asked what he meant by the term, if not about Knight, Washington said that, to him, the word meant someone who was “weak” or “a person who is not deserving of respect.” Washington issued an apology after the incident but came under fire again when he repeated the term in an interview at the Golden Globes several months later, replying to reporters who inquired about the Grey’s Anatomy on-set incident.

Following Washington’s remarks at the Golden Globes, ABC decided not to renew Washington’s contract and fired him from the show. Years later, in 2014, Washington’s character returned to Grey’s Anatomy for co-star Sandra Oh’s last episode, “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” Still, show creator and executive producer Shonda Rhimes stated that his return was only to bring closure to Cristina Yang’s storyline. The incident with Washington in 2006 has received new attention with the recent release of Lynette Rice’s book How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy, in which Patrick Dempsey’s on-set behavior has also been called into question. Off the back of the release, Washington doubled down on comments about Dempsey, insisting that star Ellen Pompeo had been paid to keep the controversy quiet.

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About The Author

Lindsay Kusiak
(121 Articles Published)

Lindsay began as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles at the age of seventeen. She is the author of two novels. She lives in Los Angeles and is most often found running or hiking with her German Shepherd, working on her books, or eating Indian food.

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