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Grey's Anatomy Was Nearly Canceled Before It Aired Because An Exec 'Almost Slept On Shonda Rhimes'

Of all the TV shows that have premiered over the past 20 years, few have gone on to be as popular as "Grey's Anatomy." In the 18 years since its 2005 debut, the Shonda Rhimes-created ABC medical drama has remained a flagship title for its network. The show has even managed to hold onto its place as one of television's biggest scripted originals despite suffering a handful of noteworthy cast departures over the course of its time on the air. 

One of the series' biggest losses came in its sixth season, which saw Dr. Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) unceremoniously leave its central hospital behind. It's now been over a decade since Heigl made her last on-screen appearance as the fan-favorite character. She nonetheless reunited recently with her former "Grey's Anatomy" co-star, Ellen Pompeo, for a 2023 installment of Variety's Actors on Actors. During their conversation, Pompeo and Heigl not only reflected on some of their early memories working on "Grey's Anatomy" together but also revealed that the series was almost canceled before its first episode even aired.

Looking back on the days leading up to the show's 2005 premiere, Heigl said, "I just remember that I was nervous that they were not going to air it. There was a moment when it was unclear. They didn't like it." Pompeo, in response, added, "We'll be very nice and not name the executive who almost took a nap on Shonda Rhimes. I'm not saying it, but he almost slept on Shonda Rhimes — almost didn't air that pilot!"

Shonda Rhimes has no intention of ending Grey's Anatomy anytime soon

Keeping to their word, neither Ellen Pompeo nor Katherine Heigl revealed at any point in their interview the identity of the network executive who almost prematurely canceled "Grey's Anatomy." That said, Pompeo did sarcastically note, "Imagine being that guy," to which Heigl responded, "I think he still is that guy. I think he owns a vineyard now in Napa."

If there are any "Grey's Anatomy" fans out there who want to know more about the show's near-cancellation, Pompeo seems to believe that the information isn't hard to come by online. Regardless, it's ultimately a good thing for not only everyone involved in the making of "Grey's Anatomy," but also its network that the show wasn't canceled before it went on the air. Nearly 20 years after its premiere, the series has produced over 400 episodes across 19 seasons and hasn't yet hinted that it'll end anytime soon. On the contrary, "Grey's Anatomy" was renewed for its 20th season in March, and Shonda Rhimes gave some optimistic comments about its future in an early May interview with E! News.

"I might be a very old lady by the time we reach its last season because it doesn't seem to be stopping," the writer-producer told the outlet. "It's such an amazing show and it's doing so well as it's moving forward." In the same interview, Rhimes added, "I'm going to leave it alone and see where it goes, and we're going to stay a show as long as everybody wants to be there and as long as the fans want to be there."

Grey's Anatomy has launched numerous careers

It's not hard to see why both ABC and Shonda Rhimes are reluctant to let "Grey's Anatomy" go. The series remains one of its network's banner titles, which makes the chances of it being canceled any time soon seem decidedly slim. For Rhimes, "Grey's Anatomy" helped turn her into one of the most in-demand TV producers and creators of her generation. In the wake of the show's success, Rhimes went on to create a number of other successful titles for ABC, including "Private Practice" and "Scandal."

Her success hasn't just been limited to her work with ABC, either. In the years since her highly-publicized departure from the network in 2017, Rhimes has overseen several TV originals for Netflix, including "Inventing Anna," "Bridgerton," and "Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story." She, of course, isn't the only person whose career was also elevated into the stratosphere by the success of "Grey's Anatomy." A number of the show's stars, including Katherine Heigl, Ellen Pompeo, Sandra Oh, and Eric Dane, have all gone on to have fairly successful careers as a result of their roles on the popular medical drama.

Now, while most of the original "Grey's Anatomy" cast members have either lessened their involvement or stepped away from it altogether, it's clear that it still holds a strong place in their hearts. The fact that it was almost canceled before it even premiered just makes its success seem all the more noteworthy.