Why Derek Shepherd's Return To Grey's Anatomy Was Hard To Keep A Secret On The Set

patrick dempsey's derek shepherd on the beach in grey's anatomy

Not every actor is lucky enough to land a role that makes them a household entity to millions of people for years and years on end, but Patrick Dempsey absolutely landed such a distinction with his role of Derek "McDreamy" Shepherd on Grey's Anatomy. The hospital heartthrob was somewhat controversially killed off back in Season 11, with fans clamoring for him to return to Ellen Pompeo's Meredith almost immediately. Even so, it was rather shocking when Derek actually did return to Grey's earlier this season, and the creative team worked hard to make sure that secret remained intact.

At a point in pop culture when Internet spoilers are as readily available as salt in the ocean, Grey's Anatomy somehow managed to keep a lid on Patrick Dempsey's key return for not just one but multiple episodes in Season 17. Director and executive producer Debbie Allen spoke about the difficulties behind keeping that bombshell's existence unknown to the viewing public, and here's how she answered when asked by THR if COVID-19 protocol limitations made it easier to keep Dempsey's return a secret:

Uh, no. [Laughs.] That secret was kept because everybody knew how valuable it was — and how amazing it was to let it explode when it came out. It was tough, but we've kept secrets before. Shonda and I kept a secret for three months when I got Denzel Washington to direct an episode. Nobody on the show even knew until he walked onstage for his first day. There's a CIA component to making a show like Grey's Anatomy.

Obviously nobody who works in the Grey's Anatomy cast and crew is a CIA agent seasoned in Black Ops – at least none that we are familiar with – so keeping mum about all things work-related isn't something they're meant to do with such hardcore security on a regular basis. Granted, showrunner Krista Vernoff & Co. aren't known for spreading Grey's Anatomy plot points like butter, but bringing McDreamy back is on a completely different wavelength from keeping normal episode plotlines under wraps. Am I saying it's on the save level as welcoming Denzel Washington as a director? I mean, come on, it's Denzel.

To be sure, when the season started, more fans probably expected to see Giacomo Gianniotti's Dr. Andrew DeLuca die than to see Patrick Dempsey's McDreamy showing up again. And if so, those people had their expectations met, with DeLuca succumbing to his Station 19 injuries in the spring premiere.

Of course, it's not like. they writers and actors went into putting McDreamy's comeback together in the same way they handled normal episodes. To the contrary, showrunner Krista Vernoff previously explained that no one at the studio or network had access to the final episode cut that featured Derek's return. What's more the writers room blocked access to the writers' assistants for the final months of writing, and not even all of the writers were in on the big surprise. The cast was also kept in the dark, and many crew members didn't discover the big twist until they were on the set about to start filming.

At this point, Patrick Dempsey has just one Grey's Anatomy appearance left to go as Derek Shepherd, at least assuming the showrunner wasn't fibbing when sharing that tidbit earlier this season.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.