Why Katherine Heigl Left Grey's Anatomy And How Shonda Rhimes Handled Her Departure

Katherine Heigl on Grey's Anatomy.
(Image credit: ABC)

In the early years of Grey’s Anatomy — which made its premiere as a midseason replacement in 2005 — the drama behind the scenes was often as titillating, if not more so, than what was happening when the cameras were rolling. From Isaiah Washington’s eventual firing to Derek Shepherd getting killed off because of Patrick Dempsey’s alleged “terrorizing” behavior on set, there are a lot interesting stories behind Grey’s Anatomy’s major cast members’ exits

Among the most public of the turbulent relationships, though, was the one between Katherine Heigl, who played Izzie Stevens, and creator Shonda Rhimes. Let’s take a look at the timeline of what went down with the actress that led her to leaving the show.

Isaiah Washington and Katherine Heigl on Grey's Anatomy.

(Image credit: ABC)

2007: Katherine Heigl Refuses To Renegotiate Her Contract, Gets Into Public Feud With Isaiah Washington 

The first signs of trouble between Katherine Heigl and the forces behind Grey’s Anatomy came pretty early into the drama’s run. In 2007 the actress reportedly became upset when Shonda Rhimes and the powers that be gave salary bumps to Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey, Isaiah Washington, and Sandra Oh, Lynette Rice reported in her book, How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy. Because of this, Heigl apparently refused to negotiate her contract, saying:

In this town, women who don’t just snap and say, ‘OK, yessir, yes, ma’am’ start to get a reputation for being difficult. I’ve decided it’s not worth it to me to be pushed around so much.

That same year, Heigl was also involved in a public feud with co-star Isaiah Washington, who had used a homophobic slur in reference to fellow Grey’s Anatomy actor T.R. Knight. Despite issuing an apology, Washington joked about the incident a few months later, prompting Heigl to say in an interview that he "needs to just not speak in public, period." Washington was subsequently fired from the show, and Rice reports that Heigl was then given her pay increase. 

Katherine Heigl on Grey's Anatomy.

(Image credit: ABC)

2008: Katherine Heigl Withdraws Her Name From Emmy Consideration 

Despite the beginnings of behind-the-scenes issues, Katherine Heigl won the 2007 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. However, when the next year’s awards came around, she withdrew her name from consideration, and when she was asked why she was missing from the ballot, Heigl said (via the New York Times): 

I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination, and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I withdrew my name from contention. In addition, I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such materials.

This was seen as a huge slap in the face to the show, and years after the incident, Heigl admitted she mishandled the situation and “ambushed” the Grey’s Anatomy writers with her Emmy withdrawal. The actress explained in RIce's book: 

I thought I was doing the right thing. And I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t snubbing the Emmys. The night I won was the highlight of my career. I just was afraid that if I said, 'No comment,' it was going to come off like I couldn’t be bothered [to enter the race]. I could have more gracefully said that without going into a private work matter. It was between me and the writers. I ambushed them, and it wasn’t very nice or fair.

Despite her intentions, or how she feels about the incident now, Katherine Heigl gained a reputation for being “ungrateful” that followed her for years, even after leaving Grey’s Anatomy

Katherine Heigl on Grey's Anatomy.

(Image credit: ABC)

2009: The Actress Publicly Shames Producers For ‘Cruel And Mean’ Working Hours 

The reputation Katherine Heigl had developed was only exacerbated when she went on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2009 and mentioned the long hours the actors had been made to work. Heigl said (via TODAY): 

Our first day back was Wednesday, and I’m going to keep saying this because I hope it embarrasses them; it was a 17-hour day, which I think is cruel and mean.

At the time, Heigl was criticized for, again, having a bad attitude, however, perspective on that incident has also changed over time. Ellen Pompeo, who is exiting Grey’s Anatomy in Season 19, has also spoken about the brutal filming schedule and long hours, and she addressed the Heigl brouhaha on her podcast Tell Me in April 2022, saying:  

I remember Heigl said something on a talk show about the insane hours we were working, and she was 100 percent right. And had she said that today, she'd be a complete hero. But she's ahead of her time, made a statement about our crazy hours and of course, let's slam a woman and call her ungrateful. When the truth is, she's 100 percent honest and it's absolutely correct what she said. She was fucking ballsy for saying it — she was telling the truth. She wasn't lying!

While people may be able to see now that she was justified in speaking out, the damage that had been done between her and creator Shonda Rhimes was seemingly beyond repair. 

Shonda Rhimes on Good Morning America.

(Image credit: ABC)

2010: Shonda Rhimes Releases Katherine Heigl From Her Contract 18 Months Early 

After years of friction between the Izzie Stevens actress and the Grey’s Anatomy crew, creator Shonda Rhimes agreed to release Katherine Heigl from her contract 18 months early. Heigl and her husband, Josh Kelly, had just adopted their first child a year earlier, and family obligation was the official reason given for her exit, according to How to Save a Life. However, conflicting reports in the book suggest there may have been additional motivations, including her wanting to focus on her film career and her failure to see eye to eye with Rhimes. 

Shonda Rhimes in Forbes spotlight.

(Image credit: Forbes)

2012: Shonda Rhimes Shoots Down The Possibility Of Izzie’s Return 

Former Grey’s Anatomy executive producer Mark Wilding has said Izzie Stevens wasn't killed off of the show because they thought there was the possibility Heigl might return after filming 27 Dresses. However, current showrunner Krista Vernoff had said major changes were made to her story to accommodate her unexpected exit, and Shonda Rhimes didn’t seem intent on doing that again to write her back into the show. When asked about Heigl’s apparent interest in returning to the series, Rhimes told TV Guide during a 2012 interview:

I think it was really nice to hear her appreciating the show. We are on a track we have been planning, and the idea of changing that track is not something we are interested in right now.

When Grey’s Anatomy did write Izzie back into the story in Season 16, it was to explain Justin Chambers’ exit. His character, Alex Karev, informed his colleagues that he’d moved to Kansas to reunite with Izzie and the twins he’d never known about. While brief flashes of Alex’s family were shown in “Leave a Light On,” Katherine Heigl was not brought back to portray Izzie. 

Katherine Heigl on Grey's Anatomy.

(Image credit: ABC)

2014: Shonda Rhimes References Katherine Heigl When Describing ‘Nasty People’ 

Time did not appear to heal the wounds that were formed between Katherine Heigl and Shonda Rhimes. Years after the actress’ exit, the famed producer name-dropped the Firefly Lane star when describing the relationships between the actors on the ABC drama Scandal. Rhimes told THR she had a “no assholes” policy, and things ran smoothly on the Kerry Washington-led series because: 

There are no Heigls in this situation. … I don’t put up with bullshit or nasty people. I don’t have time for it.

About a month later, Heigl responded to Shonda Rhimes’ interview, saying it “sucks” that the Grey’s creator was left with such a “crappy impression” of the actress, but she had nothing negative to say in return. 

The two women may not be actively firing shots at each other any longer, but I’m not holding my breath on the chance that Katherine Heigl will be joining the cast of any of Rhimes’ upcoming projects. Speaking of the streamer, if you want to rewatch Heigl’s time on Grey’s Anatomy, the first 18 seasons are available with a Netflix subscription.  

Heidi Venable
Content Producer

Heidi Venable is a Content Producer for CinemaBlend, a mom of two and a hard-core '90s kid. She started freelancing for CinemaBlend in 2020 and officially came on board in 2021. Her job entails writing news stories and TV reactions from some of her favorite prime-time shows like Grey's Anatomy and The Bachelor. She graduated from Louisiana Tech University with a degree in Journalism and worked in the newspaper industry for almost two decades in multiple roles including Sports Editor, Page Designer and Online Editor. Unprovoked, will quote Friends in any situation. Thrives on New Orleans Saints football, The West Wing and taco trucks.