November 06, 2006 12:00 PM

When the news first broke of a heated on-set argument between Grey’s Anatomy costars Patrick Dempsey and Isaiah Washington, it was Washington who promptly put a playful spin on things, jokingly complimenting Dempsey’s “pretty blue eyes” after the pair had come nose-to-nose on Oct. 9. But what at first seemed to be a fleeting dustup soon exploded into a full-blown scandal when reports surfaced that Washington, who plays Grey‘s focused-but-kind surgeon Dr. Burke, had used a homophobic slur during the fracas. Then came another newsbreak: Their costar T.R. Knight (a.k.a. McCuddly George) issued a statement on Oct. 19 disclosing that he is gay. “I’d like to quiet any unnecessary rumors that may be out there,” the statement read, adding, “I hope the fact that I’m gay isn’t the most interesting part of me.” In the wake of that announcement (and the ongoing press attention to the face-off), Washington soon sounded a far more serious note about his role in the fight. “I sincerely regret my actions and the unfortunate use of words during the recent incident on-set,” he said in an exclusive statement to PEOPLE. “Both are beneath my own personal standards … I have nothing but respect for my coworkers … and have apologized personally to everyone involved.”

The apology caps a turbulent few weeks for Grey‘s, during which the behind-the-scenes drama rivaled any of the addictively entertaining story lines that have turned the ABC series—which centers on a group of gifted, emotionally flawed surgical interns at fictional Seattle Grace Hospital—into the No. 1 show on TV. The continuing fallout from the turmoil has sparked talk of everything from hasty script rewrites of an impending onscreen fight scene (not true, says Grey‘s creator Shonda Rhimes) to rumors that Washington would be fired, possibly to be replaced by former ER doc Eriq La Salle. “I found [those rumors] not only ridiculous but offensive that we would consider replacing a member of our family,” says Rhimes. “And also the [idea] that one black man was interchangeable with another seemed disturbing to me.”

What’s more, Rhimes also dismisses speculation that the mood on the set has been unusually tense. “The mood’s what the mood’s always been,” she says. “We have a group of people who are more of a family than anything else. We have our fun days, and we have our days when people are tired and the work is hard.”

And yet the clash between Washington, 43, and Dempsey, 40, seems to have raised the bar on family dysfunction. What actually took place between the two? A set source says that when Knight, 33, was late to film a scene, a debate ensued between Dempsey and Washington, with Dempsey insisting on waiting for Knight before starting the scene. The argument quickly intensified, and the source says that yes, the alleged slur was used, but Knight was not present at the time. “Isaiah was running his mouth off. Isaiah verbally attacked Patrick—he tore into him,” says the source. “Patrick’s voice escalated and he did tell Isaiah to ‘f—off,'” but, says the source, “that was as heated as Patrick got.”

For the sprawling Grey‘s cast—a diverse group of actors who were suddenly rocketed to stardom when Grey‘s became a smash after its March 2005 debut—reports of clashing personalities and divalike behavior are nothing new. But in an interview with PEOPLE in August, Ellen Pompeo, 36, who plays title character Meredith Grey, emphatically denied talk of any animosity or inflated egos. “We’re all treated the same: No one gets any special treatment, we all have the same size trailers,” she said.

“You have to understand, you work that many hours, things can get a little testy,” says season 2 regular Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who played heart-transplant patient Denny Duquette. “It’s like Thanksgiving dinner with your family. Every now and again, something might flare up.” And clearly there are different personality types at play. Washington, for one, “can be intense, and that’s okay,” says costar James Pickens Jr. (Dr. Webber). “He just approaches everything with passion.”

As for Knight’s decision to come out, “everyone was very supportive,” says Rhimes. “T.R. is a member of our family. I feel like we were all really proud that he said it the way he said it.” Today, says Rhimes, Dempsey and Washington “are fine”—as are Washington and Knight. “They’ve had conversations,” says Rhimes. “They did a really great scene together the other day.” The whole affair, she says, “was 4½ seconds of one day in three years. I feel like we’ve already moved on.” In fact, Rhimes is so interested in changing the subject, she’s willing to drop a juicy future Grey‘s plot point. “We have a wedding coming that’s pretty awesome: It definitely involves main characters,” teases Rhimes. “It will surprise a lot of people.”

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