Whether on screen or off camera, it's always seemed stormy at ABC's "Grey's Anatomy." But amid the many swirling tempests around one of prime-time's most popular soap operas, James Pickens Jr., the deep-voiced actor who plays the authoritative Dr. Richard Webber, has consistently been a center of calm.
But earlier this year the 54-year-old Cleveland-born actor suddenly found himself a lightning rod for the show, which airs its season finale tonight. During a red carpet interview, he sparked a round of shock, denials and corrections when he said that cast members T.R. Knight and Katherine Heigl would be leaving the show by season's end.
"I didn't think anyone ever listened to me," Pickens said, laughing inside his North Hollywood loft. "All these people were coming up to me, saying 'You're the talk of the town.' I just couldn't believe that this became such a big deal."
It was an unfamiliar position for Pickens, who despite being a veteran of several series is still uncomfortable with his celebrity.
Even during the rash of "Grey's" controversies that have included reports of discontent on the set, the firing of costar Isaiah Washington and the later dismissal of an actress in a same-sex couple plot line, Pickens has remained under the radar.
"A lot of folks in show business like drama, but that's never been my MO," said Pickens. "I just enjoy going to work."
There's more to life than work for the actor, a deeply religious man who founded the James Pickens Jr. Foundation to promote the revitalization of communities through the arts and humanities.
In connection with his foundation, he's producing three performances of the musical "Gospel! Gospel! Gospel!" on Friday and Saturday at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. Among the performers joining him are Loretta Devine, who plays his estranged wife on "Grey's Anatomy," and Rocky Carroll ("NCIS").
From the launch of "Grey's Anatomy" in 2005, the Chief, as his character is known, quickly came to be seen as the flawed but steady hand that guided the medical interns -- or as he said, "a ship of fools." Executive producer Betsy Beers said she and series creator Shonda Rhimes knew Pickens was their man.
"He's strong and in charge, but he's also very funny," said Beers. "Shonda writes to his strengths, but also his vulnerabilities. The world is a better place because he's in charge. With James, you just trust him."
The role was a perfect fit from the first scrub-in. Although he'd done comedy (he played Dan's best friend in "Roseanne"), his specialty has been a gravitas that has served him well in dramas such as "Six Feet Under," "The X-Files," "NYPD Blue" and "The Practice."
Central to his "Grey's" character is his conflicted relationship with intern-now-resident Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo). His character feels responsible for the young doctor because of his affair with her mother that occurred when she was still a child. The pair have had several stormy confrontations this season.
"I really enjoyed where my character went this season," Pickens said. "He wants to be a father figure, but he can't be."
As for the storm clouds that seem to hover over the set?
"Any time a show sparks this kind of interest, that kind of thing is going to happen," he said matter of factly. "We're like a family. In families, these kinds of things happen. That doesn't make it bad -- it is what it is. The fans are a lot more intrigued by all of this than we are."
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)