Jeffrey Dean Morgan Reflects Upon Denny
He did not go gently, and death was definitely not proud.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan hoped, prayed, schemed and finally begged for the life of his Grey's Anatomy character, Denny Duquette, according to the L.A. Times. At one point, he marched into the office of creator / executive producer Shonda Rhimes, turned on the charm and pleaded.
"Please, please, just let me live," Morgan asked.
Rhimes was sympathetic, but unwavering. On the season finale, as fans have lamented for weeks now, Denny survived a difficult heart transplant, asked Izzie to marry him, then succumbed to a stroke. Denny quietly breathed his last with no one in the room (save 20 million viewers at home).
"It was a grim day, let me tell you. A dark, grim day. I'm still not over it. It broke my heart to leave that show," said Morgan of his death scene.
In becoming one of TV's top hits, Grey's Anatomy has built and maintained a devoted following, many of whom held out hope that the ailing patient would somehow pull through. Fans have voiced sorrow and outrage since his death. Some are even in denial to the point where they believe Denny may somehow come back to life.
"I don't think so," Morgan said, grinning. "I mean, I was blue."
But there is life after death for the actor, who has toiled for 15 years with guest roles on pretty much every TV show you can think of. Fans are approaching him in public, old friends are coming out of the woodwork and producers who wouldn't have given him the time of day a year ago are suddenly calling.
"It's very weird. I mean, I've been kicking around this town for years. 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," Morgan said.
Leaning back with an iced coffee in a cafe in Toluca Lake, Calif., where he resides, Morgan has the look of someone who can't quite believe he's in the position he's in. He had, in fact, turned down an audition that day, since he just agreed to do a movie starring Lisa Kudrow and Teri Garr that begins shooting next week in Austin, Texas.
"It's a small part," Morgan said. "But can you imagine, Lisa Kudrow? And Teri Garr? I mean, Tootsie, that's just amazing."
Of course, life's not perfect, and if he had been able to choose precisely what he wanted to do, Morgan would be back on Grey's Anatomy.
"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 saw him as Mary-Louise Parker's dead husband on Weeds (Morgan jokes that it was his year, apparently, to play the dead and dying) and asked him to audition.
Shonda Rhimes is intensely secretive regarding plots, so Morgan was given only basic information. While he would appear in multiple episodes, his story arc would end eventually in the death of his character.
Which, at the time, was more than alright with Morgan. He thought initially that he might be brought in as a romantic diversion for Meredith, played by lead actress and narrator Ellen Pompeo. It wasn't until after he took the job and got a script that he realized his love interest would be Dr. Izzie Stevens, played by Katherine Heigl.
"No one knew how much the story would take on a life of its own," Morgan said. "I don't think even Shonda knew how the fans would be drawn to the romance. It was pretty incredible."
Over the course of his time on Grey's Anatomy, Morgan experienced what it was like to be a pivotal character in one of the hottest dramas on TV.
To an outsider, it might seem like an easy role. Morgan was in a hospital gown and lying bed for virtually every one of his scenes. Yet the confines of Denny's disease were what made the role so challenging.
"I definitely give it to the writers," he said. "They created a guy who could charm a room without moving, but it took a lot of effort."
Denny was seen out of bed only twice, once in his first episode — the only time you see him in regular clothes — and then towards the end, after his LVAD wire was implanted and he became a bit more mobile.
"I cannot tell you how excited I was to see a scene with him walking," Morgan joked. "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 an actor can get when flat on his back.
"I had no idea what it would be like. 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," Morgan said.
He and other cast members fought for Denny's life. Even the network itself threw in its two cents.
"We didn't get the final pages until, like, a day before shooting. 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,'" Morgan recalled.
The reason for that, of course, was that the death of Denny occupied about three lines of the script, at the very end. When he reached that point in the script, Morgan collapsed for his chair onto the floor. Heigl looked at him, sharing his pain.
In addition to being emotionally wrenching, the death scene was technically difficult. When Denny died, he simply looked momentarily puzzled, leaned back, and drifted off. But in an ensuing scene, Izzie was a basket case, lying next to his corpse and refusing to leave while her fellow interns tried to talk her out of the room.
"Everyone's saying, 'What we really need is for you not to breathe, Jeff,'" Morgan said. "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... that was driving me crazy."
Still, he pulled it off and suddenly it was over -- a fact that still hasn't really resonated with the 40-year old.
"I have definitely been laying low for the last few weeks. 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," he said.
Distraught as he is over his own demise, Morgan realizes he is standing on the edge of opportunity. The choices he makes next could carry him, and his asking price, into another echelon. Or, he could simply fade away. A piece of Grey's Anatomy trivia.
"I'm just looking always for characters that change, because I want to get better, as an actor and as a person. But basically," said Morgan, who would like to do more movies as well as TV. "I'd really like to work with Shonda again; I would follow that woman anywhere."
Seek and you shall receive. Morgan recently became the first actor to be cast in the Untitled Shonda Rhimes Project, which will be filming this fall for an ABC piolt. As for who he's playing, Morgan has no clue. After all, we're talking about Shonda.
"She just told me it was the best character she'd ever written," he said. "That's good enough for me."
For now, he's trying to savor the moment.