The end when it came was as sudden as it was anticlimactic. One month after the season finale and five months after Isaiah Washington famously lost his cool on the sets of the hit show Grey's Anatomy, ABC finally confirmed that Dr. Preston Burke is indeed history.
To backtrack a little, Washington landed the part of an arrogantly brilliant cardiac surgeon on Anatomy after a pretty successful Hollywood career playing supporting characters in A-list movies with stars such as Harrison Ford and George Clooney, amongst others. Burke was a role he welcomed, coming as it did when he was sick, as he once confided, of playing thugs. But it came with its own set of problems, starting with the cast.
Creator Shonda Rhimes, who says she writes and casts characters without following the standard Hollywood practice of first creating a racial profile for them, auditioned two men for the role of the de facto main lead, neurosurgeon Dr. Derek Shepherd. One was Washington, the other was Patrick Dempsey. Whoever landed the role, nicknamed McDreamy, would play opposite the nominal lead character in what was to be an ensemble effort, Meredith Grey. Grey was to be played by Ellen Pompeo.
The role went to Dempsey, at the time an '80s has-been who'd found fairly steady work in bit roles over the last 20 years. Washington, on the other hand, was cast as the equally yummy but missing-the-Mc-stamp of approval Dr. Burke.
The first inkling of any sort of discontent filtered out when Washington openly attributed the casting of McDreamy to the color of his skin. He said it quite clearly on ABC's Nightline when the show was interviewed in the first flush of its success about its multicultural cast and creative team, and repeated it to Oprah Winfrey.
For what it's worth, I think he might have a point. While interracial relationships have become fairly prevalent in America, many people still look at it askance. It is not inconceivable that ABC was particularly hesitant to show the most problematical, as Washington put it, of them all – the white woman-black man relationship. Neither Rhimes nor Pompeo, however, have ever addressed the issue directly, both maintaining that Dempsey was well cast. In fact, Rhimes often delves into her fangirl side when asked about Dempsey.
And then came other news of on set troubles. With an ensemble cast that grew and expanded by leaps and bounds, screen time was always going to be an issue. Rumors abounded that Washington and Dempsey in particular had issues of this sort. Nobody was admitting anything however. And then came news that Washington, who bills himself as a perfectionist, was irked by TR Knight's (he plays everybody's favorite Bambi George O'Malley on the show) tardiness and had called/referred to him as a "faggot" prompting an on set fight with Dempsey.
Once again, everything and everybody locked down. Things dragged on for a couple of days and then Knight gave an interview to People that confirmed his sexuality as a gay man. Everyone wanted to know if his hand was forced by the Washington rumors but he wasn't talking any more than the rest of them.
Enter Ted Casablanca of The Awful Truth, a gossip columnist who was amongst the first to report on the Washington-Dempsey-Knight fiasco. At the Golden Globes last year, where GA was one of the big winners, Casablanca asked Rhimes in front of the assembled (and visibly uncomfortable) cast whether the rumors were true and all the above had indeed occurred. Before she could collect her wits, Washington leaned across, grabbed her mike and said, “I did not call TR a faggot!”
Pandemonium! He said it again! Okay, it was in the third person but he said it a-g-a-i-n!
Co-star Katherine Heigl (a.k.a. Izzie Stevens), who stars in this summer’s hit Knocked Up, came out in defense of Knight and essentially told Washington to shut it. Knight himself went on Ellen Degeneres’ show and laid it all on the line, including the information that Washington had indeed used the slur on set. Rhimes and ABC had very little to say. Washington went on to explain himself and his explanations made everything sound about a hundred times worse.
Coming as it did in the wake of the whole Mel Gibson on an anti-Semitic, misogynistic rant and the Michael Richards racist spiel, Washington made it a trifecta of Hollywood people who apparently had no idea that Jews, women, gays, and African Americans all play significant roles in their line of work, from producers to viewers.
[There was also Paris Hilton's home video in which she drops the N-word in addition to billing herself as a coke whore but I'm talking about people who have an actual talent so let's move on.]
The whole thing even made it into the political arena when that troll-to-end-all-trolls Ann Coulter chose to make a “faggot” fueled dig at Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards.
That, of course, was after Washington saw the error of his ways and decided to go to rehab to get over his homophobia. Only in Hollywood, folks. Only in Hollywood would that sentence even make sense.
Anyway, so he went to rehab, held talks with gay rights groups and even filmed a PSA about how sticks and stones may break your bones but words can still hurt you or something along those lines. Rhimes and ABC remained tight-lipped even if the love of my life, Chandra Wilson a.k.a. The Nazi, chose to shout out to “that other one in rehab” when she won at the Screen Actors Guild Awards later that season.
With the season ending on a low note for every single character on the show, the question was still in the air as to whether Washington would continue to be a part of Grey's Anatomy. Well, now we know.
On the one hand, this is a crushing blow for fans of GA. Dr. Burke was an integral and riveting part of the show. His relationship with Christina Yang (the oh-so-excellent Sandra Oh), his neuroses as a doctor and human being, his closest and multi-faceted relationships at the hospital – be it with McDreamy, George or Izzie (the irony!) – were all a significant part of the GA dynamic. Even when I hated how his control freak, sanctimonious ass was behaving with Christina, I was a Burketina shipper.
Secondly, Washington is a wonderful actor. There wasn't a nuance he didn't hit, a note that he played false. To watch Oh and Washington in action as a couple negotiating crises or as student and teacher, was to be enthralled. Dempsey might have been McDreamy but Washington wasn’t exactly lacking in the fan department.
But then he also says things like this: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
If that sounds familiar or catchy, it’s because it’s ‘inspired’ by Network, an iconic satire about a venal television network that uses an anchorman’s on-air breakdown to fuel ratings.
And here’s what his publicist had to say:
“If they wanted to fire him,” Bragman asks, “why didn’t they fire him when [the incident] happened? Why did they say, ‘Here’s what you need to do if you want to come back… ‘ and then, when he did everything that was asked of him, he still gets fired. Why do you treat somebody like that?”
“If you made a mistake, you acknowledged the mistake, you went into counseling, you met with the groups, you did the PSA, you did everything that was asked of you, and then they still kick you in the gut? How would you feel?”
How can a man who works in an industry built around image be so clueless? How does he manage to land the one PR agent who basically all but comes out in the open and says his client has absolutely zero sincerity and it’s unfair that he got canned even after he made all the right noises? It’s going to be an enduring mystery to me.
If you look at it one way, GA is the result of various race, gender, and sexual rights campaigns to achieve equality. It's a show created by a black woman, featuring black, white, Hispanic, and Asian characters playing highly successful professionals who have interracial and same sex relationships. But if you look at it another way, it shows you that you can't rid yourself of the baggage of those same struggles by simply averting your head.