Inside the Grey's Anatomy pilot: 'ABC basically treated the show as if it were a low priority'
Some of the best shows in television history came from unremarkable beginnings. Test audiences notoriously loathed the 1989 pilot for Seinfeld. CSI was the last drama in 2000 to be ordered by CBS, which had far more faith in its remake of The Fugitive, starring Tim Daly. And then there was Grey's Anatomy, a 2005 midseason replacement for Boston Legal that was written by a TV novice whose biggest credit was penning The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. The stakes were relatively low for Shonda Rhimes and her drama about four randy interns working in a Seattle hospital. ABC wasn't in immediate need of another water-cooler drama, having just launched Desperate Housewives and Lost. And the last network to create a must-see medical show was NBC in 1994 when ER gave us a McDreamy in George Clooney before we even knew we wanted one. And yet the audaciously confident Rhimes, a USC film school grad and self-described addict of surgery shows, was convinced she had something special on her hands.
SHONDA RHIMES (Creator): I always associated hospitals with good things. That's where I got fixed. We all think of doctors as amazing and magical, but they're just people at work.
STEPHEN MCPHERSON (Former ABC Entertainment Group President): Shonda had done a pilot about female war correspondents that everyone loved, but it was not something we were interested in. We were really encouraged by Shonda's writing. We thought the television industry was due for a medical drama.
PETER HORTON (Executive Producer): It was always about relationships. It was primarily a story about Derek and Meredith and longing. You saw these two people and how they longed for each other.
ELLEN POMPEO (Dr. Meredith Grey): I thought it was about five interns and [Meredith's] mother.
PETER HORTON: Derek and Meredith were the cornerstones of that show. The opening scene of the piece is the two of them having just slept together in a one-night stand. Now, it was like, "We can't be together because you're my boss." That becomes the obstacle that the two of them have to negotiate with and dance around for, you know, years.
STACY MCKEE (Writer): The original script was really long, an unmakeable draft, ultimately. We ended up shooting quite a bit of it, but obviously, you can't have a three-hour first episode, so you have to cut a lot out and shift some things. At one time Preston Burke and Richard Webber may have been related. There were a few relationships that might have shifted over time. But the core story was always there.
ABC didn't look far for its star intern. Pompeo, a former L'Oréal model who broke out in Brad Silberling's 2002 comedy, Moonlight Mile, was already roaming the halls of ABC after starring in the network's failed TV pilot called Secret Service.
ELLEN POMPEO: The network didn't go for it. Me... as the head of the Secret Service!
SHONDA RHIMES: I kept saying, "We need a girl like the girl from Moonlight Mile!" Finally, somebody said, "I think that girl is Ellen Pompeo. We have a deal with her at ABC."
ELLEN POMPEO: I said, "I hate medical shows! They make me think I'm gonna die all the time." And they said, "Please just go meet Shonda." So we had lunch at Barney Greengrass in Beverly Hills, and after I met her it was like, "I want to do this show." I just liked her. We were the same age. This may sound weird, but she's a Black woman, and I always really feel comfortable around Black people. I married a Black man! And I trusted her. She had a vision for the show.
PETER HORTON: She's got that "every girl" beauty. She's not model-y, she's not overly gorgeous, she's just beautiful. That's exactly what Meredith needed to have.
ELLEN POMPEO: To come from where I come from, no entertainment background, not even having the slightest idea how to get into show business? I just felt so blessed to be making a living this way.
Katherine Heigl had a little more experience than Pompeo, but not by much. Also a former model, she appeared in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory before costarring as Isabel Evans in The WB's Roswell for three seasons. For her Grey's Anatomy audition, Heigl tried to look smart by wearing a sweater and glasses and putting her hair up in a bun. She even considered dying her hair brunette to "trick" Rhimes and Horton into thinking she could play a doctor.
PETER HORTON: Trying to find someone that beautiful who really can act is really hard. It's like trying to find a guy in his forties to be a lead in a series these days, with all of the competition out there. Katie came in and just nailed it. There were a couple of other girls we were considering, but Katie just obliterated it.
STACY MCKEE: She was wearing glasses in the pilot. I think her hair was probably up in a bun for the pilot, as well. We lost the glasses pretty quickly, though, because it was sort of a nightmare with the reflections, and glasses are hard to shoot. You'll note there are a number of scenes, even in the pilot, where she's wearing them for a split second and then puts them on top of her head really quickly so they wouldn't reflect all of the lighting.
SANDRA OH (Dr. Cristina Yang): I was wearing a pair of scrub pants and had my hair in pigtails. I came in and read for Shonda, Betsy Beers, and Peter Horton. And it was great. And then they came back and said, "We want you to read for Bailey." And I was at that point in my personal space where I wanted to ask for what I wanted, and I didn't want to play Bailey. I said, "What else is available?" And they said, "Cristina is available." For me, at that time, I was interested in playing a role that was the antagonist. In the pilot, she was the antagonist and also not in a position of authority. Bailey had authority; she was their teacher.
PETER HORTON: We said, "Sure." She went away for a little bit, studied the sides, came back, and read for Cristina. She was brilliant. And right about that time, we got this tape from out of nowhere from New York of Chandra Wilson reading Bailey. We were like, "Oh, my God. That's Bailey and Cristina, no doubt about it."
HARRY WERKSMAN (Writer): We called Bailey a Nazi [in the pilot]. If you were to meet Chandra herself, she's the sweetest woman, the antithesis of what you see on-screen. It's remarkable. Anything on Grey's was always done to take the piss out of it. There was no evil connotation with calling her a Nazi. It's just [meant to call her a] taskmaster. It's much catchier to call someone "the Nazi" than "the taskmaster."
JENNA BANS (writer): Shonda was always really aware of being inclusive. But I also remember that she didn't want to sacrifice a joke, in a good way. And sometimes for comedy, you can't be so worried about offending. You're going to offend someone. So she had a really good sense of sort of walking that line of not wanting to say anything that she didn't believe in as a person, but also, you know, being true to the characters. And sometimes people are a little offensive and say the things they shouldn't. She kind of let us have free rein with that type of thing.
CHANDRA WILSON (Dr. Miranda Bailey): People leave me alone because they think I'm mean. I'm not mean... I'm misunderstood.
TONY PHELAN (Writer): Shonda managed to fill that pilot up with people who had a lot of stage experience, probably more collectively than they did experience in TV. But that meant they were really well-trained actors.
That described James Pickens Jr., who had trained at the Roundabout Theatre in New York before taking recurring roles on Curb Your Enthusiasm and The West Wing. He was cast as Dr. Richard Webber. And T. R. Knight had appeared on Broadway in Noises Off before making his TV debut opposite Nathan Lane in the short-lived TV series Charlie Lawrence.
PETER HORTON: T. R. Knight just did a great read for George. He just came in and was so unique, his rhythms and his intonations and everything, they're just unlike anybody else. We'd seen so many people come in and play that part really shy, embarrassed, and, you know, self-deprecating, and he came into it with all of that, but with a kind of a determination of, "But I'm going to be as good as any of these people." That grated into his quirkiness. T.R. being T.R. just made him stand out.
T. R. KNIGHT (Dr. George O'Malley): Who was I coming in? [Casting director] Linda Lowy really stuck her neck out, and I was so appreciative of that.
There was even some discussion about whether George should be the show's only gay man.
HARRY WERKSMAN: There was certainly a desire to include a gay character on the show. We eventually got it [first] with Callie, but she was bisexual. I do remember having some discussions about it and about a gay character and looking over the cast at the time. George seemed to make sense. Alex was the macho guy, and it clearly was not McDreamy or Burke. We were like, "Well, it could be George." We had no idea that T.R. was gay. So we talked about it, but I think we were just like, "Eh, if it works in a story [we'll do it]." I think a pin was put in it. I think that was about as far as it got.
The daughter of Hollywood royalty Richard Burton was recruited to play the pivotal role of Meredith's mom, Ellis, a world-famous surgeon whose brilliant career was cut short because of Alzheimer's disease.
KATE BURTON (Dr. Ellis Grey): I was forty-six years old and I was looking at television stuff to do. I got a call from my manager, who said, "There's the part of the mother of the leading lady who's a surgeon, but now she's in a nursing home and has early-onset Alzheimer's." And I literally thought, Are you kidding me? Ellen [who was in her thirties at the time] was obviously too old to be my child.
Finding Burke and McDreamy took a bit more doing. Paul Adelstein was cast in the role of Dr. Preston Burke, but the actor had to drop out due to conflicts with shooting the movie Be Cool. (Adelstein would later rejoin the Shondaverse as Dr. Cooper Freedman, Oceanside Wellness's pediatrician, in the Grey's Anatomy spin-off Private Practice.)
PAUL ADELSTEIN (Dr. Cooper Freedman): Shonda is very strong at writing to the actors she has, so I think my Burke would have been a completely different animal.
ISAIAH WASHINGTON (Dr. Preston Burke): I didn't audition for Burke, I auditioned for McDreamy. I had a beard and Afro and was going for a Ben Carson character at the time. Shonda and I thought it was a great idea to represent a brain surgeon who looked like Dr. Ben Carson. That didn't go that way. There's a rumor out there or something that Ellen didn't want me to be her love interest because she had a Black boyfriend. The context is that she's not into white men. I guess she implied that her boyfriend may have had a problem with her doing love scenes with me, so she felt uncomfortable. I supported her with that.
PETER HORTON: The network wanted us to cast Rob Lowe as Derek Shepherd. He's not exactly who we had in mind for McDreamy, but we met with Rob. He had a choice of either doing our show or Dr. Vegas for CBS. He chose Dr. Vegas. Then we were like, "What about Patrick Dempsey?" At that point, Patrick kind of already had his career and no one was really paying attention to him. The network initially was resistant to it, but we really felt right about it.
TONY PHELAN: Rob Lowe! That pilot could have gone in a very different direction.
ROB LOWE (actor): My picker was awesome! The real, honest reason was [former CBS Corporation chairman] Les Moonves's pitch to me. His personal pitch was amazing, and there was no pitch from ABC. ABC just never said anything. I just had a better meeting with CBS. The scripts were incomparable. The vibe around Dr. Vegas was great. The script for Grey's Anatomy was great. I went with the vibe over the script. The rest, as they say, is McDreamy.
PATRICK DEMPSEY (Dr. Derek Shepherd): I needed something that let me play a leading man with an edge. People had such a strong idea of who I was, based on who I had played years ago. I was so over it.
ELLEN POMPEO: I definitely was involved in the process of hiring Patrick. Ultimately I don't have a say; the network is going to do what they want to do. But they saw the chemistry between us. There were five or six guys in the final process, and I read with all five of them. And then I think they only brought three or four to the network. And then they watched the audition, and it was quite obvious right off the bat that Patrick and I had the best chemistry.
PATRICK DEMPSEY: With Ellen, there was the magic. I just played with her. We were just present to each other and listening to each other. It was always very magical, but very professional.
SHONDA RHIMES: We called him Dr. McScreamMeF---Me during the pilot. [McDreamy was] the PG-rated version. It's really amazing that this thing that we came up with while shooting the pilot, just because Patrick Dempsey is so adorable, stuck.
An additional four actors—Josh Bywater, Sean Palmer, Grinnell Morris, and Sendhil Ramamurthy—were cast as background interns who might have gone on to become characters in their own right. But they never made it past episode one. (Ramamurthy was later cast as geneticist Mohinder Suresh in the NBC sci-fi drama Heroes.) Two other bit players from the pilot, however, got to stay in Seattle for a long time.
JOSH BYWATER (Intern No. 1): That made me feel really good about myself because I was not Intern Number Two or Intern Number Three. It was an under-five role, which is an actor who has under five lines. I said something about Izzie being a super-model. I can vaguely recollect some notion of wondering if this might grow into something bigger. I don't think at the time anybody knew really what was going to happen.
SENDHIL RAMAMURTHY (Intern No. 2): I had gone in and read for T. R. Knight's part. Shonda really liked what I was doing but said, physically, I just didn't look like how the character should look. She was like, "We love you, would you do Intern Number Two in the pilot just like a consolation prize?" Five lines? I'll take it. It was either my first or second job on U.S. prime-time TV since I left drama school.
MOE IRVIN (Nurse Tyler): I remember seeing Gabrielle Union in the waiting room for my callback. I thought I did a good job. I didn't hear anything for about three weeks. Then I got a call that said, "We're casting you as Tyler." Apparently, there was kind of like a juggling thing between me and Steven Bailey. I'm thinking he was considered to play Tyler at one point, but they cast him as Joe and me as Tyler. I likened my role to a good meal that you're preparing: you need a little bit of spice to kick it up. That's what Tyler was. Tyler would come in, throw a jab here and there, spice things up a little bit, and then I was out. I wasn't trying to come in and throw a bunch of crazy shit like, "Look at me."
STEVEN W. BAILEY (Joe the bartender): I actually auditioned for the role of the guy who died in the pilot. George promised he was going to be okay and then he died. I read for that and they offered it to me, but unfortunately, I wasn't able to do it because I had something that ended up not going over at Fox. A lot of people don't realize this, but I actually played a different role for a few episodes in season one. I played an anesthesiologist, believe it or not, with a couple of little lines of, like, "Pressure is dropping," or, "I'm pushing some kind of medication," or whatever. I think they had plans to develop that character, and then somewhere along the line, they decided he wasn't a thing they wanted to do, and so they came up with this Joe guy instead.
Filming on the pilot began quietly at an abandoned veterans hospital in Northridge, California.
PETER HORTON: We needed a practical hospital that had the topography that could double for Seattle. Since I was from Seattle, I was being really picky. When we walked into the lobby of Northridge and looked out that huge lobby window, I could've sworn I was looking across Lake Washington to Bellevue! The fact that it's a veterans hospital was an added bonus in that it was almost empty, sadly. Perfect to shoot in.
STACY MCKEE: There were a lot of empty buildings. Our writers' offices were literally hospital rooms. The windows were nailed shut because, apparently, it had been a psych ward or something. We were pretty sure it was haunted and it was just kind of this bizarre, weird bubble that forced everyone to bond really quickly. Everything was right there, so it really added to the sense of camaraderie, not just with the cast but with the crew. It was pretty special.
ERIC BUCHMAN (Writer): ABC basically treated the show as if it were a low priority. They had two shows with lead characters named Dr. Shepherd. Lost also had a Dr. Shephard! At no point did anyone get the note saying, "Maybe you should consider a different name since you'll both be on the network." It seemed to me like no one cared.
JOSH BYWATER: It was the first big set I'd ever been on. T.R. was great. We were shooting a scene in the cafeteria and he's supposed to be eating because he's nervous. He just kept eating. The more takes we did, he said, "I need a bucket. What am I doing to myself?" And I grew up watching Patrick Dempsey in Can't Buy Me Love! He came in and said, "Hey, I'm Patrick." I'm all, "I f---ing know who you are."
STACY MCKEE: Patrick walked in with a certain sense of knowledge like he understood what was happening a little bit more than some of the people who hadn't done a lot of projects prior. He was so gracious. I remember the first read-through. There was a catered lunch or something. I just remember sitting at a table with food and him walking around and shaking hands with most everyone who was in the room and introducing himself. It was really nice.
PATRICK DEMPSEY: I've been around long enough that my hopes weren't up too high.
MOE IRVIN: I remember Jon Voight came on the set. He was the godfather to Skyler Shaye, who was the first patient in the pilot. I remember going, "What the f---, man? This s--- is real. These people ain't playing around." I had done one other pilot, commercials, stuff like that. But not to this level.
Once Rhimes and Horton found their perfect hospital, special care was taken to make sure the doctors looked authentic but not too hot.
MIMI MELGAARD (Costume Designer): At the very beginning, Shonda wanted the scrubs to look real, but real scrubs are totally ill-fitting. They're huge. We altered them all, but we wanted them to look real. We didn't want to make them look like they zipped up the back, but we tried to make them as flattering as possible within the reality of the show. The thing that was really challenging as a costume designer for Grey's is that everything had to be subdued. The story was first, and the clothes couldn't distract from the story at all. If someone's coming into the hospital, it's emotional. I worked really hard to never have the clothes upstage anything. Even in surgery, you see the bottom of the scrub cap and their eyes. I didn't want anything to distract from their eyes, even in those real tight close-ups. I wanted the character and the story to come out. I don't want someone to go, like, "What coat is that?" Or, "Ooh, that's a cool bag." We never wanted that, so we kind of developed this Seattle look, which was a muted color palette. Also, when the show started, my intention was to have the clothes really subtle. I kept thinking that the show was going to go into syndication, so I wanted the clothes to look timeless.
NORMAN LEAVITT (Makeup Director): Peter Horton wanted everybody to look, like, rough and ready, to try to keep them looking real. They're medical people just taking care of stuff, without makeup. I don't think Shonda or [her producing partner] Betsy Beers particularly liked that. They were young, pretty people anyway, what are you going to do? My whole thing was to do no harm. As the episodes went along, I don't know, the network, Shonda, Betsy, whoever else was in there, wanted a little more glamour. It's a TV show.
With everything finally in place, filming began in 2004.
PETER HORTON: My original opening for the pilot was Ellen lying naked on the couch. The opening scene of the pilot was Derek and Meredith having just slept together in a one-night stand. We had a very tight lens that was out of focus, going over all the curves of her body. You didn't even really know what it was as the credits were rolling. [Her body] would come into focus as her eyes opened. It was this beautiful description of Grey's Anatomy. We just didn't have time for it, plus Shonda had an instinct to start the show with more of a bang than the grace of that. I kind of regret it. We seriously could have kept it.
FORMER ABC STUDIOS EXECUTIVE: There were big debates about the big reveal [of Meredith's romp with Derek]. Most of the men wanted to take the scene out. You're taking your heroine to a place where she's too promiscuous!
SHONDA RHIMES: I got called into a room with a bunch of people who said, "You can't put a woman on television who had sex with a guy the night before she started work." Because they said no woman does that, and the kind of woman who does is really trashy. There were all these old men in the room, and I had no idea how to respond. The moment I knew that Betsy Beers and I were going to be friends for the rest of our lives, she opened her mouth and said, "I f---ed a guy the night before my first day of work." She told the raunchiest story, and none of the men could get away fast enough. And no one ever brought it up again.
Former ABC Studios Executive We did the right thing and listened to them.
That wasn't the only disagreement over the pilot.
HARRY WERKSMAN: At one point Steve McPherson hated the title Grey's Anatomy. So for a week we were called Complications.
ERIC BUCHMAN: That was a book out there called Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science. So Shonda said, "Eric, you need to go read this whole book just to make sure that this writer can't accuse us of basically stealing his book." It was written by Atul Gawande. It was a good book, and there were similarities because they're both about what's it like to be a young doctor working for a hospital for the first time. There were things that would overlap. I heard that ABC went and optioned the book just so they could officially use the title, but I do not know who made the call to go back to Grey's Anatomy.
KATE BURTON: When my manager called me, he said, "They're doing this show called Surgeons." That was the working title.
ERIC BUCHMAN: I also remember someone in the room pitching—and it might have been me, I hope it wasn't me—somebody pitching the name Miss Diagnosis. I'm pretty sure it was a joke. Shonda just outright hated that.
And something—or someone—felt like it was missing from those intern gatherings in the lunchroom.
FORMER ABC INSIDER: We had three really big pilots that year: Grey's Anatomy, Lost, and Desperate Housewives. Grey's Anatomy tested better than Lost or Desperate Housewives, but the concern was that Grey's was very generic, very derivative. And the concern was, how do you make a medical drama break out? Steve also felt, looking at the research, that there was something missing in the characters. They needed to add another younger male character. He wasn't going to schedule the show until he was happy with what the second episode looked like.
TONY PHELAN: We had shot the whole pilot without Justin Chambers. One of the notes after the pilot test was: "You need a bad boy. You need a male member of the intern class who's not just an asshole, but male."
PETER HORTON: So we shot his scenes with him later.
TONY PHELAN: If you go back and watch the pilot, you can see how they surgically put Justin in everywhere.
JUSTIN CHAMBERS (Dr. Alex Karev): There were definitely nerves. I was with all these other actors, I didn't know anybody, hoping that the show would be a success. Thank God it worked out.
Still, the addition of a new series regular wasn't enough. McPherson continued to have concerns, which did nothing for his reputation.
STEPHEN MCPHERSON: I remember one time, Gary David Goldberg said that the worst executive he had ever worked with Stephen McPherson on Spin City. There's just one small problem with that: I never worked on Spin City in any capacity, in any way, at any time. I wasn't even at the network that it was on during its run! I also, to this day, have not ever met Gary David Goldberg.
PETER HORTON: ABC was very worried. We had this one time where they decided our show wasn't colorful enough. I had a business affairs woman come up to me and say, "Do you think that poster is colorful enough?" I mean, it was really absurd. Steve McPherson was a very controlling executive, more so than any I've ever worked with. We had this locker room scene in the pilot where they're all meeting. It was shot with a steady handheld camera. Steve called us up after he saw those dailies and said to Mark Gordon, "I can't sell this show because you do those shots that aren't steady." I mean, it was like an overreaction to every little thing.
STEPHEN MCPHERSON: Being in the job I was in, you have to very quickly get used to constant pessimism about every single thing you do. But that's the nature of the game.
So he shut down production after the producers turned in the first episode. His reaction was so unforgettable that twelve years later, executive producer/showrunner Krista Vernoff told The Hollywood Reporter: "He hated it. He said to [then ABC executive] Suzanne Patmore Gibbs at the time, 'This show is going to be the chapter in my book titled "Why I Should Trust Myself or Why I Should Trust People I Hire."' Because she forced that program on the air. And then it was a great big hit, and he got all the credit."
JAMES D. PARRIOTT: (Co-Showrunner): Steve was surrounded by women he trusted very much and in executive positions, and they told him it was wonderful and our test results were good. We tested four episodes that first season and they all tested very well. So we knew we had something.
PETER HORTON: ABC was convinced we'd blown it.
FORMER ABC EXECUTIVE: The rough cut was terrible for the second episode. It wasn't terrible in the sense that it wouldn't work for TV, but it was shot very dark because they were going for a cynical look. You have to light dark-skinned individuals really well when you shoot sixteen millimeters because otherwise, you won't see them. They didn't shoot this particular scene very well, and you couldn't see two of the people.
HARRY WERKSMAN: Steve was unhappy with a particular scene that had already gone through the approval process. The scene was about one of the terrible jobs that interns are given: having to deliver bad news to patients. Alex and Cristina were given that bummer of an assignment, so they turned it into a contest on who could deliver the bad news the fastest. We made it funny, these two type-A personalities competing with one another.
JAMES D. PARRIOTT: One of the stories that we told was about a woman who had been raped and was beaten almost beyond recognition. They find the head of the guy's penis in her stomach. It was really dark but very Shonda-esque. It was a really brilliant episode. And then Karev and Cristina were tasked with giving bad news to people. It was very funny, but it was dark. Steve McPherson, it turns out, had just lost a close friend to cancer and was feeling very sensitive about it. Steve saw that and was outraged.
HARRY WERKSMAN: Apparently Steve saw it, hated it, and said, "This is not the show. This is not what will go on ABC." So he shut the show down.
JAMES D. PARRIOTT: We changed it to where they're running around telling the good news and we changed the makeup on the battered woman to be a little less severe. That's all that happened.
PETER HORTON: We had to have big meetings and I was like, "Okay, I'm going to get fired. Writers are going to get fired. They clearly see something totally different than what we see." They had a big meeting, where all they basically said was, "You have to make sure the show is colorful, happy, uplifting, and positive." And then they fired my director of photography. They blamed it on him, for no reason. Everyone else took a two-week break.
JAMES D. PARRIOTT: It was a larger issue. It wasn't just, "Oh, gee, that's too dark, fire him." We felt that he was dismissive and gruff and so that was all part of it, too. The way I've heard some executives present it is like they saved Grey's and turned Grey's around. We didn't change any of the scripts that we shot before that episode.
PETER HORTON: Then we started up again and nothing really changed.
STEPHEN MCPHERSON: Shonda and I have joked since then. I guess I was a little foul-mouthed while being straight with her about this amazing show. But we had some serious work to do. To her credit, she heard it and did the work, made the changes, and off it went. So to say the person who develops the show, picks up the show... it's kind of an odd position to take that I hated the show.
STACY MCKEE: No one thought it was going to be a phenomenon at that point. We were all just doing our part to make this little thing we all believed in, to give it the best chance of moving forward. It was new to everybody, including Shonda. We all were just hoping and dreaming.
How to Save a Life will be published on Sept. 21 and is available for preorder now.
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