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Ellen Pompeo on the future of "Grey's Anatomy"

Ellen Pompeo on the future of “Grey’s Anatomy”
Ellen Pompeo on the future of “Grey’s Anatomy” 07:17

You might not know that actress Ellen Pompeo is quite the home gardener. Last week correspondent Tracy Smith got a tour of the nursery shed outside the Los Angeles home Pompeo shares with her husband and three kids.

"Oregano is a really good," Pompeo said. "I think they say it, like, has antiviral properties. So, like, oregano oil for flu and colds is really good. But I just, like, chew on the leaves."

"You chew oregano?" asked Smith.

"I am an Italian girl!" she laughed. "I say I cook like an Italian, and tell a story like an Irish."

Ellen Pompeo, right, shows correspondent Tracy Smith her garden. CBS News

Of course she's a lot better known for something else she's been helping to grow for the past 17 years. Her show, ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," happens to be the longest-running primetime medical drama on American TV – 17 seasons and counting.

By comparison, "Dr. Kildare" only lasted five years, the landmark CBS series "MASH" ran for 11, and perennial favorite "E.R." said goodbye after 15 seasons.

As the show's title character, Dr. Meredith Grey, Pompeo has survived all manner of calamity and heartbreak. But this season, Grey herself has COVID-19, and in recent episodes she's been drifting in and out of a dream sequence from which she may, or may not, awaken.

Ellen Pompeo as Dr. Meredith Grey in "Grey's Anatomy." ABC

And now, millions of fans are on pins and needles waiting to see if Dr. Grey – and her namesake show – lives or dies.

Smith asked, "Are you looking now – and I'm not trying to make you give anything away – but are you …"

"Yes, you are!" Pompeo smiled.

"I'm not. I swear I'm not."

"Yes, you are. Everybody does."

"Okay, maybe a little …"

"I can't say. Can't say," Pompeo said. "We honestly have not decided. We're really trying to figure it out right now."

"You're in the middle of deciding whether it ends or it doesn't end?" asked Smith.

"Yes. It's, what story do we tell? To end a show this iconic, you know, how do we do it? I just want to make sure we do this character and this show and the fans – I want to make sure we do it right."

And you can bet it'll be heart-stopping. For Pompeo, emotion seems to come naturally.

Born in working-class Boston, Pompeo had by her own admission a melancholy childhood.

"I was quite sad as a child," she said. "I think people might have, you know, my sisters or my family might have other impressions of me. But I definitely, you know, had a very sad childhood because I lost my mother when I was four. So, that shapes your entire existence, I think."

Smith asked, "How does something that traumatic affect a kid? I mean, how did it affect you?"

"I think it probably made me want to get out of there. You know, that place represented sadness for me. So, I thought, maybe anywhere but there would be better. And luckily for me, I found a way to monetize all my emotion, you know?"

Like most struggling actors, Pompeo's first on-screen roles (the Steven Spielberg film "Catch Me If You Can") were mostly small and often forgettable. That is, until her agent convinced her to stop taking bit parts and do a TV pilot for a medical show.

"I got cut out of a bunch of movies," Pompeo said. "So, then it came to a point where I needed money, so I did the 'Grey's' pilot."

"Because you needed money?"  

"I said, 'I don't want to be stuck on a medical show for six years. I don't think I'll be happy. I think I'll be bored.' And [my agent] said, 'You know, Ellen, just take the job. It's gonna last, you know, a month, six weeks at best. And these things never go.' So, I said, 'Oh, they don't?' And he said, 'No, no. It'll just be a job and you'll right back to being broke and unemployed and complaining in a couple of months.' And I said, 'Okay.'"

And now, 17 seasons later, Pompeo said she's learned just what she's worth to the network – and how to ask for it.

"You are one of the highest-paid actors on TV," Smith said, "And I would imagine that, I know, that didn't come easy."

For 17 seasons actress Ellen Pompeo has starred in the longest-running primetime medical drama on American TV. But now her character, Dr. Meredith Grey, has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Will she - and the show - survive? CBS News

"No, of course not. No," Pompeo replied. "But in my specific instance, I had a very specific number that I can see what 'Grey's Anatomy' has generated. I can see exactly how much that show makes for one of the biggest corporations in the world."

And her end of the deal is reported to be $20 million a year.

As for what happens next? Pompeo claims even she doesn't know.

"I mean, as we sit here, we don't know whether Meredith is alive or dead, basically?" Smith said.

"Right. We don't know. I'm in that we," Pompeo said.

"You're in that we? You really don't know at this point?"

"I mean, you know, we have choices."

But no matter what happens on the show this season. Ellen Pompeo will (to some at least) always be Dr. Meredith Grey, and she, in a way, will live forever.

"It's a blessing, of course. You're on a hit show. But at the same time, you do have to kind of go, 'Okay, now I'm in this box. What comes next? How do i find my way out?'"

"Yeah, I guess you could look at it like that. I looked at myself as if I was in a box when I was 35 years old," Pompeo said. "Now I'm 50, and I would never look at myself that way again. So, with age comes wisdom."

"And now, how do you see it?"

"And now, how do I see it? Well, I can do anything I want. Or not do anything at all!" she laughed.

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Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Lauren Barnello. 

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