‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Stars Who Left the Show and Came Back

When a show like Grey’s Anatomy has been on the air for 18 seasons and more than 400 episodes, you’re bound to have some repeats. Not only do plotlines sound vaguely familiar when you reach almost two decades of air time, but it gives plenty of time for characters to leave the show — only to return years later. 

Some actors have left ABC’s hit medical drama on their own accord, and others were killed off controversially over the years. And though a few have yet to return to Grey-Sloan Memorial, plenty of fan-favorite cast members have reappeared from time to time. Rumor has it that Jackson Avery (Jesse Williams) and April Kepner (Sarah Drew) are next in line to reappear for the Season 18 finale on May 26, but they’ll be far from the first to reprise their roles on the show. 

Cameo reappearances include Preston Burke, Sarah Utterback, Addison Montgomery, and April Kepner

Though many characters leave the Grey’s set for a final time after their character is written off, a handful have returned for one or two episodes later in the series. The most recent occurrence is Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh), who starred as the first-spurned, then-divorced partner to Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). Walsh left the show in Season 7 to star in the Shondaland spinoff Private Practice, which ran for six seasons on ABC. Walsh returned for Episodes 3 and 4 of Season 18 when she made peace with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), and returns in Episode 16, airing tonight. 

Other cast members returned for just one episode, including Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington), Olivia Harper-Jankovic (Sarah Utterback), and April Kepner (Sarah Drew), ScreenRant reports. Burke returned in Season 10 for a one-episode appearance to offer Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) the opportunity to run a medical institute in Switzerland. Washington was originally written off after Season 3; he was fired after being accused of uttering a homophobic slur on set. 

Utterback was written off as a result of the hospital merger in Season 6; she returned to her character in Season 14 when her son swallowed a chew toy. April had a series regular run on the show from Season 6 until 14, when she left in the season finale to marry paramedic Matthew Taylor (Justin Bruening). So far, she has returned for one episode at the end of Season 17, when Jackson asks her to move to Boston and she agrees, revealing that she and Matthew are separated. Fans are eager to see if Japril is finally endgame material when they reappear in the current season’s finale. 

Teddy Altman and Megan Hunt returned for larger character arcs

Other characters have returned to the show after a long hiatus to continue expanding upon the character’s storylines in a much larger way. Megan Hunt (Abigail Spencer) is the younger sister of Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd), and first appeared in Season 13. Hunt has appeared off and on since then through the years to be the voice of relational reason to her older brother. Hunt most recently appeared in Season 18 when her son, Farouk, needs a heart transplant. 

The character to return with the longest reprised tenure is Teddy Altman (Kim Raver), who is also connected to Owen. The pair served together in the U.S. Army as part of their backstory, and she first appeared on the medical show in Season 6. She took a five-year break from the show and then returned for a cameo in Season 14 and as a series regular in Season 15 when she reconnected with Owen and eventually married him in Season 18. 

‘Grey’s’ found ways to bring the dead back to the show

Ellen Pompeo as Meredith and Patrick Dempsey as Derek on 'Grey's Anatomy' sit next to each other in lab coats.
Ellen Pompeo as Meredith and Patrick Dempsey as Derek on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ | Ron Tom/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Though Grey’s is a medical show and therefore won’t bring back the dead without a plausible explanation, the writers have found creative ways to give fans glimpses of their favorite characters who have met an untimely demise on the show in previous seasons. 

One episode is famous for doing this: “Flowers Grow Out of My Grave” in Season 15 when Meredith has a patient whose family celebrates Day of the Dead. Several fan-favorite characters appear in spirit cameos for that episode. They include George O’Malley (T.R. Knight), who died in Season 6 after being hit by a bus, Lexie Grey (Chyler Leigh), who died in the infamous plane crash in Season 8, and Mark Sloan (Eric Dane) who died in the Season 9 premiere following injuries sustained in the same crash. 

Mer’s mother, Ellis Grey (Kate Burton) makes several from-the-grave appearances in the show following her death from Alzheimer’s Disease in Season 3. She appears in the Day of the Dead episode, in a dream to Meredith, in an alternate universe episode where Meridith imagines what life would be like if her mother and Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.) had stayed together, and in a Season 18 vision to Meredith’s half-sister, Maggie. 

Perhaps the most beloved cameos from the deceased are from Dr. McDreamy himself, Mer’s late husband Derek Shepherd. Dempsey reprised his role three times so far since his tragic death from brain injuries sustained after being hit by a semi-truck in Season 11. He appeared in the Day of the Dead episode, is imagined by Meredith as she struggled through a long surgery in Season 13, and in Meredith’s Covid-induced coma dreams. The Covid dreams continued through much of Season 17, and gave a chance for Knight, Leigh, and Dane to also reappear once more. 

One Grey’s theory is that the number of past cast members in the last two seasons signals a forthcoming end to the long-running medical drama, though no official statements have been made. For now, the Season 18 finale will air on Thursday, May 26 on ABC at 8 p.m. EST for a two-hour segment.