Life after death
HE did not go gently, neither was he proud. Jeffrey Dean Morgan hoped, prayed, schemed and finally begged for life; at one point, he marched into show runner Shonda Rhimes’ office, turned those big shining eyes on her and pleaded: “Please, please, just let me live.”
Rhimes was sympathetic, but Rhimes was firm, and on the season finale of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Morgan’s beloved character, Denny Duquette, survived a difficult heart transplant, asked Izzie to marry him, got her to say yes and then, in the last few minutes of the show, had a stroke. While no one was watching, save the 19.9 million viewers sobbing in their homes, Denny quietly breathed his last.
“It was a grim day, let me tell you,” Morgan says of shooting his death scene. “A dark, grim day. I’m still not over it. It broke my heart to leave that show.”
The show, which follows the exploits of a group of Seattle surgeons-in-training, including Izzie and main character Meredith Grey, is one of the biggest hits on television. It has a devoted following, many of whom were apparently holding out hope that Denny, a long-ailing patient, would somehow pull through. After his death, countless fans lighted up the ABC switchboard in their sorrow and outrage; a few have circulated petitions in hopes that somehow Denny can be resuscitated.
“I don’t think so,” Morgan says with a grin. “I mean, I was blue.”
But death does not trump fame; in some cases, it fosters it. After working as an actor for more than 15 years, after having guest appearances on “pretty much every TV show you can think of,” Morgan has suddenly found himself a posthumous celebrity. Weeping women approach him in the supermarket, long-lost friends are falling out of the woodwork and, most important, producers and directors who wouldn’t have given him the time of day a year ago are suddenly on the phone.
“It’s very weird,” he says, shaking his head with another one of those heartwarming grins “Grey’s” fans would recognize at once (Morgan may well have the whitest teeth in television). “I mean, I’ve been kicking around this town for years. And for an actor, it’s usually just about paying the mortgage and keeping the dog fed. But now I can actually think about the kind of projects I want to do. Now I can actually say no if I want.”
Leaning back behind an iced coffee and an iced tea in a cafe near his home in Toluca Lake, Morgan has the look of someone who can’t quite believe he’s saying what he’s saying.
But, in fact, he said no to an audition that day -- because he had just agreed to do a movie starring Lisa Kudrow and Teri Garr that begins shooting in Austin, Texas, in a week.
“It’s a small part,” he says, “but can you imagine, Lisa Kudrow? And Teri Garr? I mean, ‘Tootsie,’ that’s just amazing.”
Of course, if he had been able to choose precisely what he wanted to do, he’d be back on “Grey’s.”
“Oh, I came up with lots of ideas for how I could come back,” he said. “I mean, what if Denny had a twin brother named Lenny, who was a pediatric surgeon? They need a pediatric surgeon in that hospital.”
Yet he went into the Denny gig knowing he was a goner. Rhimes had seen him as Mary-Louise Parker’s dead husband on “Weeds” -- “It has been the year for me to play the dead and dying,” Morgan admits -- and asked him to come in for an audition. “I almost didn’t go because I wasn’t feeling well, but when I heard she asked for me ...”
Rhimes is so secretive about her plots that Morgan was given only the barest information -- that he would be in multiple episodes but that the narrative arc of his character would end eventually in his death. Which at the time was fine with Morgan.
He thought for a moment he might be brought in as a romantic diversion for lead actress Ellen Pompeo. It wasn’t until after he took the job and got a script that he realized his love interest would be Izzie, played by Katherine Heigl.
“No one knew how much the story would take on a life of its own,” Morgan says. “I don’t think even Shonda knew how the fans would be drawn to the romance. It was pretty incredible.”
Meanwhile, Morgan was experiencing what it was like to be a pivotal character in one of the hottest dramas on TV. And although to an outsider it might seem like an easy role -- Morgan was in a hospital gown and in bed for virtually every one of his scenes -- the confines of disease were quite a challenge.
“I definitely give it to the writers that they created a guy who could charm a room without moving, but it took a lot of effort sometimes,” he says.
In fact, Denny was seen out of bed only twice, once in his first episode -- “the only time you see him in clothes” -- and then toward the end, when a surgical procedure makes him a bit more mobile.
“I cannot tell you how excited I was to see a scene with him walking,” Morgan says. “I started thinking, ‘oh maybe he’ll be able to go outside, maybe we’ll get to go to Seattle.’ Then I turn the page and nope, he’s falling down the stairs and back to bed.”
Still, it was the best work you could get flat on your back, he says.
“I had no idea what it would be like,” he says. “How attached I would get. To Denny and everyone there. It is such a great show, such a great group of people. It was the only time in my career when I didn’t mind getting up at 5:30 in the morning, didn’t mind the 16-hour days. I couldn’t believe it. So ... yes, I fought to stay.”
He fought, other cast members fought and even the network put in its two cents.
“We didn’t get the final pages till, like, a day before shooting,” he says. “And at the table reading, I can’t bear to look, but I’m sitting next to [Patrick] Dempsey, and he’s flipping through to the end, and he’s saying, ‘I don’t see it, man, I don’t see a death scene. I think you’re going to live.’ ”
That was partly because the actual death of Denny occupied about three lines of the script. When he got to it, Morgan says, he literally fell off his chair onto the floor. “And poor old Katie’s just sitting there looking at me. It was very emotional.”
And, it turns out, technically difficult. Although Denny’s death was as simple as him looking puzzled, then leaning back, a following scene had Izzie literally prostrate with grief, lying next to his corpse while her friends tried to talk her out of the room.
“Everyone’s saying, ‘What we really need is for you not to breathe, Jeff,’ ” Morgan says, “and I’m like, ‘It’s a four-minute scene, man.’ And Katie’s right beside me, crying, bless her heart, but the tears are hitting me on the neck and,” he writhes in memory, “that was driving me crazy.”
Still, he pulled it off and suddenly it was over, a fact he still can’t quite believe.
“I have definitely been laying low for the last few weeks,” he says. “I mean, how can they do the show without me? What’s going to happen to Izzie? Who did Denny leave his money to? Are they going to have a funeral? They should definitely have a funeral.”
But as distraught as he is over his own demise, Morgan realizes he is standing on the ledge of one of those infamous windows of opportunity -- the choices he makes next could whisk him, and his asking price, up into the local firmament or relegate him to a bit of “Grey’s Anatomy” trivia. He would like to do movies, but television’s good too.
“I’m just looking always for characters that change, because I want to get better, as an actor and as a person. But basically,” he adds, “I’d really like to work with Shonda again; I would follow that woman anywhere.”
As indeed he is. He recently became the first actor to be cast in a pilot that Rhimes will shoot this fall. Who is he playing?
“I don’t know,” he says. “She just told me it was the best character she’d ever written, and that’s good enough for me.”
Meanwhile, he’s trying to take advantage of this moment while still having fun.
“I am really going to try hard not to screw up,” he says. “But in the end it’s a crapshoot -- you never know what’s going to take off and what isn’t. It’s been great, though,” he says, with another shake of his head. “I mean, it is great. Really great.”