‘Grey’s Anatomy:’ Isaiah Washington Almost Played This Character, But Ellen Pompeo Was Against It

Isaiah Washington is best known for playing Dr. Preston Burke on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. At first, the actor auditioned for a different role in the medical drama. Unfortunately, he didn’t book the part due to his former co-star Ellen Pompeo. She seemingly didn’t want Washington to play this particular role, and as a result, he got the part of Preston Burke. So, what role did Washington initially audition for on the show? 

Isaiah Washington auditioned for the role of McDreamy

Isaiah Washington and Ellen Pompeo dressed in scrubs in 'Grey's Anatomy.'
Isaiah Washington and Ellen Pompeo | Karen Neal/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

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In Lynette Rice’s tell-all book How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey’s Anatomy, Washington revealed that he initially auditioned for the role of Meredith Grey’s love interest, Derek Shepherd. According to Insider, he said that creator Shonda Rhimes’ originally wanted the character to be “a brain surgeon who looked like Dr. Ben Carson.”

Instead, Washington got the role of Preston Burke, Cristina Yang’s (Sandra Oh) love interest and mentor. But, according to the actor, Ellen Pompeo didn’t want him to play Derek on the show. “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,” he said in the book. 

At the time, Pompeo was dating record producer and fashion executive, Chris Ivery. They tied the knot in 2007, and they have been married ever since.

“The context is that she’s not into white men,” he continued. “I guess she implied that her boyfriend may have had a problem with her doing love scenes with me, so she felt uncomfortable.”

As a result, Patrick Dempsey got the role of Derek Shepherd on Grey’s Anatomy. The actor played the character for 11 seasons before his departure in 2015. So, why was Ellen Pompeo against the idea of Washington playing her on-screen love interest?

‘Grey’s Anatomy’ star Ellen Pompeo wanted a different actor to play her love interest

Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey dressed in white lab coats in 'Grey's Anatomy.'
Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey | Scott Garfield/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

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In celebration of the 200th episode of Grey’s Anatomy, Pompeo addressed the casting situation between Washington and Dempsey. During a 2013 interview with The New York Post, the actor shared that she didn’t want to “put an interracial couple” on the show. Also, she said the overall concept was “too close to home,” referring to her relationship with Ivery.

“You know they wanted Isaiah Washington to be my boyfriend,” Pompeo said at the time. “Shonda [Rhimes] really wanted to put a black man in the mix. I didn’t think they were really going to put an interracial couple on the show, and I didn’t want him. It was too close to home. I said I wanted that Dempsey kid.”

Washington returns to ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Season 10

In 2007, Grey’s Anatomy dropped Washington after the third season. After a heated argument with Dempsey on set, he allegedly used a homophobic slur toward co-star T.R. Knight. Despite issuing an apology, ABC didn’t renew the actor’s contract. 

Back in 2014, Washington reprised the role of Preston Burke in Grey’s Anatomy Season 10. His return to the series came after Sandro Oh announced her exit. So, Burke helped Cristina bid a final farewell to Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital.

At the time, showrunner Shonda Rhimes told The Hollywood Reporter: “It’s important to me that Cristina’s journey unfolds exactly as it should. Burke is vital to that journey – he gives her story that full-circle moment we need to properly say goodbye to our beloved Cristina Yang.”