July 17, 2009 at 12:00 PM EDT

As I first scooped in this week’s Ask Ausiello, T.R. Knight’s army-clad parting shot on Grey’s Anatomy almost didn’t feature T.R. Knight. The haunting scene in the final moments of the show’s season finale — the one where George appears poised to escort Izzie to heaven via elevator — was originally filmed with Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s deceased Denny waiting for Katherine Heigl’s cancer-stricken MD. But an 11th hour epiphany by series creator Shonda Rhimes resulted in Denny getting the shaft.

“Something didn’t feel right,” Rhimes recalls. “And then it hit me, ‘My God, it’s George! When the elevator opens, it should be George we see.'”

There was just one problem. Actually, there were two problems. Keep reading to see what they were and how they got resolved…

Thinking he was done for the season, Knight went ahead and shaved his head. As Rhimes explains, “[Director] Rob Corn calls me up and goes, ‘What do we do?'” Considering George enlisted in the Army right before getting mowed down by that bus, the solution came to Rhimes in an instant. “I said, ‘Put him in a military uniform!’ It wasn’t a big amazing plan I had.”

The happy accident packed an emotional punch for viewers, Knight included. “It was brilliant of Shonda to put George in the dress blues,” says the actor, who last month confirmed that he would not be returning to Grey’s next fall. “It was such a powerful image.”

The whole thing is even more remarkable when you consider that Heigl was in Atlanta shooting a film and not present for the reshoot. To ensure their expressions were in sync, Knight picked Heigl’s brain over the phone before stepping in front of the cameras. “I was like, ‘What did you do in that scene?'” he says with a laugh. “It’s nice when you’ve worked with someone for five years. There’s a shorthand.”

Heigl still had some concerns about whether the switcheroo could be pulled off. “Katey called me and was like, ‘Are my expressions going to match his? Is it going to work?” Rhimes recounts. “And I was like, ‘I promise you it’s going to be perfect.'”

Meredith. Alex. Bailey. Arizona. The doctors are definitely in on Shonda Rhimes’ hospital melodrama.
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