America’s sexiest “doctor” races toward hope and healing.
By Diane Meehl
When Patrick Dempsey first auditioned for the role of Dr. Derek Shepherd, he remembers being terrified. Famed creator Shondra Rhimes—who President Obama once claimed, “owns Thursday night TV”—wore a stone-cold expression.
Perhaps it was because like so many women, she too was charmed by his dazzling smile and easy charm. Now legions of fans can’t even imagine Grey’s Anatomy, one of television’s most enduring series, without the 11 seasons in which Patrick Dempsey played hot neurosurgeon and “Mer’s” better half, “Der.” (Dr. Meredith Grey is the show’s central character, and it is through her lens the stories are narrated each week.) It was an iconic role for which the acclaimed actor earned a Screen Actors Guild Award and a People’s Choice Award to add to his cache.
While Dempsey has also served as the “face” for lofty brands including L’Oreal and Versace, while also toggling a career as a racecar driver and philanthropist, most of the world will always know him affectionately as, “McDreamy.”
Dempsey, now 51, flashed that winning smile and held Grey’s Anatomy’s rabid following in the palm of his hand for more than a decade. He continues to win over new fans as they discover Grey’s on Netflix. Audiences followed Derek and Meredith’s journey from drunken one-night-stand to aching on-again-off-again love romance to enduring love and marriage—all while navigating demanding careers as surgeons and keeping up with the steamy drama the patients and staff at “Seattle Grace” managed to stumble through.
How did Dempsey and co-star Ellen Pompeo manage to make audiences fall so desperately in love with their aching romance?
According to Dempsey it was, “Beautiful chemistry.”
“We’re like a married couple; it’s 10 years and it was magic from the beginning…Very moving, always has been,” he told Entertainment Weekly during an exit interview in 2015 after wrapping up his role on the series.
Dempsey’s character was so popular in fact, that Rhimes herself came under fire for killing off Derek after a season that saw his appearances dwindle. She was forced to explain her decision to the angry mob after some boycotted the show after Dempsey’s shocking departure.
“Meredith and Derek’s love had to remain Meredith and Derek’s Love,” Rhimes told E News. “…I couldn’t really have the idea that he turned out to be a bad guy who walked out on his wife and kids…to me, it was the only way to make Meredith and Derek’s magic remain true and forever frozen in time.”
After playing such a universally beloved character, Dempsey said his challenge would be to explore new terrain in his evolving acting career.
“Will I be allowed to do something different? That will be the challenge, to see if people embrace me as someone else,” he went on to say in the exit interview that broke thousands of hearts. The show went on without him, but for many fans, was never quite the same.
The race comes full circle
Meredith and Derek may have enjoyed an epic love story, but the twice-married actor and father of three coped with his share of highs and lows over the years. He endured a much-publicized divorce filing in 2015 after 15 years of marriage to make-up artist Jillian Fink. The following year he confirmed the two had reconciled.
“You have to work at everything. And you cannot do everything. Something has to be sacrificed,” he told Us magazine in 2016. While juggling his demanding schedule for Grey’s, he toggled an equally all-consuming passion: auto racing. Over the years he’s competed in 68 races, scoring his top podium win at Le Mans in 2015, and also winning the FIA World Endurance Championship race at Fuji. While he claimed racing was even more exciting than acting, he decided to take a break in 2016 to focus on family and helping his children achieve their own dreams.
His new season marks a maturing full circle from humble beginnings. A proud son of Lewiston, Maine, Dempsey’s parents were middle class professionals who valued church, work, and education. Often labeled “lazy,” he struggled academically, but was then diagnosed with dyslexia in middle school. He’d shown an interest in acting during his high school years, and decided he wanted to spend time with working actors and learn by doing instead of attending college.
He dropped out of high school to try his hand as a magician and juggler, a craft he says changed his life. He told the New York Times, “It gave me purpose; it led me toward performance.”
Making his way onto the stage and the small screen in the 1990s, Dempsey landed several recurring roles in sitcoms and films, including Heaven Help Us, Can’t Buy Me Love, and Loverboy. His career hit a brief stall before he rocked an Emmy-nominated performance playing a brother coping with schizophrenia in Once & Again alongside Sela Ward in 2001. Finally, 2002 ushered in his biggest break opposite Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama, before landing his celebrated role as Dr. Shepherd in 2005, cementing his place in history as a superstar.
Since tossing in his on-set scrubs, Dempsey’s taken on new roles including an appearance in Bridget Jones’s Baby in 2015. But his enduring passion, as it turns out, keeps him spending more time at a hospital.
Hope and healing at the Dempsey Center
While Dempsey seemed right at home in the operating room, his real contribution to patient care was first a gift to his mother, Amanda. She navigated a journey with ovarian cancer for nearly two decades before passing away in March of 2014.
When his mother was diagnosed, Dempsey, like many families, tried to source the best information to help his family cope. So in her honor, he decided to launch the Patrick Dempsey Center for Hope & Healing, in partnership with the Central Maine Medical Center.
There, patients and families in Maine touched by cancer enjoy access to helpful resources, services, and practical help at no cost. These include therapies that complement clinical treatments, such as massage therapy and acupuncture to help alleviate the side effects of cancer and treatment. Children, parents, and families are offered specialized services such as expressive and experiential therapies including art, play and adventure, and community through the Healing Tree Youth & Family Services.
“For a family to get a cancer diagnosis is devastating, and the information out there can be overwhelming,” Dempsey told reporters at the Kennebec Journal when he launched the center in 2008. Dempsey consulted his sister, Mary, who worked at the hospital, about creating a place where patients and families could seek support. “Knowledge is power,” he said.
Each year Dempsey joins in the center’s annual fundraiser, the Dempsey Challenge in Lewiston. (The 2017 Challenge is scheduled for Oct. 7 through 8.) Participants can walk, run, or bike and raise funds for the center. He told Portland’s WCSH 6, “ It’s such an amazing and emotional journey when you ride along with someone and you hear their story…you spend this brief moment of time riding through the countryside at a great time of year, and people’s hearts are open. There’s no agenda…and there’s such a strong sense of community. It’s beautiful.”
“Beautiful.” It continues to define both Dempsey’s look, and his outlook.
To learn more about the Dempsey Center for Hope & Healing, visit dempseycenter.org.