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Why Didn't Grey's Anatomy Kill Off Katherine Heigl's Izzie? The Team Explains

katherine heigl grey's anatomy abc
(Image credit: ABC)

There are many difficulties involved in creating a TV show, and one of those that fans can probably recognize, even without first-hand experience, is how to write off a popular character, especially if they’ve been around for several seasons. Grey’s Anatomy has been through this many times in its nearly 18 full seasons on ABC, with one clear choice being for characters like George, Derek, and Lexie to (not so simply) shuffle off of this mortal coil. Now, some of the writers are talking about why they didn’t kill off Katherine Heigl’s Izzie Stevens when she had to leave the show.

Even if you haven’t been watching Grey’s Anatomy for the entirety of its run, you will likely know that there were several behind the scenes controversies that led to actors' departures, including a big one involving Katherine Heigl. The actress originated the role of Izzie in the first season, but after withdrawing from the Emmy race in 2008 with a public diss for the writers, Season 6 saw her drift in and out Seattle Grace-Mercy West Hospital, until she left for good about half-way through the season...very much alive. 

So, why didn’t they just kill Izzie? Mark Wilding, who was executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy from 2007-2012, told Lynette Rice for How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey's Anatomy (via Insider), that there seemed to be “hope” in the writers minds that Heigl would be willing (and able) to return to the series at some point in the future, but also said:

I don't know why we didn't kill Izzie, I really don't...Katie subsequently talked about wanting to maybe come back to the show to wrap things up a couple years later, but that never happened.

You bet it never happened. Fans didn’t get a whole lot of closure (to begin with, anyway) when it came to the romance between Izzie and Alex Karev when Heigl was originally written off of the show. Izzie had survived cancer and many ups and downs with her husband-turned-ex-husband, but eventually left town for good when he refused to get back together with her. 

Then, in Season 16, when the writers suddenly needed to find a fast and believable way to write off original star Justin Chambers (who’d played Alex for the entire series), they decided to have him leave his current wife to go be with Izzie, who had been raising their twins in Kansas without his knowledge. Fans were very much not on board with that move, but it did finally give those who’d hoped to see the two back together some sort of resolution, even though it didn’t come when they, or the writers, had wanted.

Jenna Bans, another former writer on Grey’s who was there during Heigl-gate, has a slightly different view on why Izzie was left among the living, and said: 

Shonda [Rhimes, who was showrunner at the time] felt like that was more of an unexpected way to go.

Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if the truth of the matter is somewhere in between these two answers, but it’s possible we may never know the full answer to why Izzie wasn’t simply killed off when Katherine Heigl left. Either way, it does mean that she might return, if the Stevens stars manage to align. And, with Heigl noting that she’d now be open to it? Even better.

Adrienne Jones

Bachelor Nation, Gilmore Girl; will Vulcan nerve pinch pretty much anyone if prompted with cheese...Yes, even Jamie Fraser.