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Life after death

`Grey's Anatomy's' Morgan sees his career reborn after Denny dies.

May 31, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

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."

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