Another tense, high-stakes day is unfolding in Seattle Grace Hospital. A window washer who has fallen five stories — or did he jump? — is dying on the operating table. A senior citizen prepped for gallbladder removal is about to learn she has cancer. And a woman who has tested positive for the ovarian cancer gene is demanding a radical procedure: the removal of her breasts and uterus. Meanwhile, in the staff locker room, former lingerie model Isobel ”Izzie” Stevens (Katherine Heigl) and smarmy lothario Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) — two surgical residents whose love/hate banter over the past year can only lead to one thing — are discussing the patient contemplating the loss of her womanhood. ”Here’s the thing,” says Alex. ”I like your rack. And I’d want them around if I had them… But it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you had to get rid of them…because really, I’d want you.” She pauses, gazing softly into his eyes, and then — POW!! — she slaps him. Just as quickly, she pulls him into a lip-lock.
The one-two punch leaves Chambers flummoxed even after the cameras stop rolling. A crew member yells, ”Are you okay, Justin?” A broad Cheshire cat grin spreads across the actor’s face.
Grey’s Anatomy may be a medical drama, but in this hospital, booty calls definitely take precedence over brain surgery. The foibles and fumbles of Anatomy‘s oversexed group of first-year interns (and their equally horny superiors) made the ABC series one of last season’s breakout hits. It debuted March 27 as a placeholder for Boston Legal, but something unexpected happened: Sixteen million viewers watched the premiere, and the numbers kept growing. An elated ABC held Legal‘s remaining episodes until this season and gave Anatomy an uninterrupted nine-week run. It quickly became the biggest hospital hit since ER bowed in 1994, and the most watched midseason drama series since Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman 12 years ago.
”I’ve been around long enough that my hopes weren’t up too high,” admits Patrick Dempsey, 39, whose role as Dr. Derek Shepherd reignited a career that began with late-’80s teen farces Can’t Buy Me Love and Loverboy. ”But the thing kept building. It shocked me.” Creator Shonda Rhimes? Not so shocked: ”I knew that the show was good. I assumed that if I wanted to watch the show, others would want to watch it.”
Rhimes, a televised-surgery addict, was a frustrated USC film school grad so hungry for work in the mid-’90s that she almost gave up and enrolled in medical school — then she sold her first script. The movie, about an interracial May-December romance, wasn’t produced, but it kicked off a fruitful run: Rhimes wrote the award-winning HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, the Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads, and The Princess Diaries 2. In early 2003, Hollywood was fawning over her first TV pilot, a drama about four female war correspondents; soon after, events in Iraq doomed the project. So Rhimes retreated to write another series — this time based on her experience as a ”sickly kid” and former candy striper.
”I always associated hospitals with good things,” she says. ”That’s where I got fixed. We all think of doctors as amazing and magical, but they’re just people at work.” ABC greenlit the pilot, and planned to shoot it in March 2004. Rhimes and exec producers Betsy Beers, Jim Parriott, Mark Gordon, and coexec producer Peter Horton (thirtysomething)began the thankless task of casting nine major characters. The role of Meredith was easy to fill, since execs at ABC had promised Pompeo (Old School, Moonlight Mile) another shot after she tested for their failed pilot Secret Service. (”The network didn’t go for it,” says the wispy 35-year-old actress, feigning incredulity. ”Me…as the head of the Secret Service!”) Rhimes, without realizing it, had wanted Pompeo all along. ”I kept saying, ‘We need a girl like the girl from Moonlight Mile!’ and finally somebody said, ‘I think that girl is Ellen Pompeo. We have a deal with her at ABC!”’
The rest of the interns soon followed: Sandra Oh, who’d gained notice in the 2003 Diane Lane romance Under the Tuscan Sun but was still frustrated with her film opportunities, signed on as ambitious Cristina Yang. Roswell’s Heigl took the role of Stevens, Charlie Lawrence’s T.R. Knight joined as hapless naif George, and The X-Files‘ James Pickens Jr. agreed to play surgery chief Richard Webber. (Chambers was added to the cast after the original pilot was shot.) Broadway vet Chandra Wilson landed the part of cranky senior resident and so-called ”Nazi” Miranda Bailey, despite the fact that Rhimes envisioned a blonde spitfire for the role. ”I can do anything I want to now!” says Wilson, 35, flashing a smile that could sweeten even Bailey’s sour disposition. ”People leave me alone because they think I’m mean. I’m not mean — I’m misunderstood.”