The high-profile parts start to come to him—a recurring role on Will & Grace in 2000, an Emmy-nominated turn as a schizophrenic on Once and Again in 2001 and then the big break, as Reese Witherspoon’s love interest in the 2002 hit Sweet Home Alabama. When he auditions for Grey’s Anatomy in 2004, it’s just another project that he can take or leave. Executive producer Shonda Rhimes originally wanted Rob Lowe, but Lowe’s gone off to do Lyon’s Den instead. “It was impossible to be disappointed about not getting anyone else for the part after meeting Patrick,” Rhimes says. “Five minutes in a room with him and there was no question in my mind I was looking at the McDreamy I had imagined.”

Now, in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Dempsey shrugs as he pulls out his phone to see if any of the guys from Hypersport, his racing team, have called. “I needed the job,” he says of that audition. “I had to pay bills. I never went into Grey’s thinking it was going to be a success.”

What was the backup if Grey’s didn’t go?

“I didn’t have any.”

And he didn’t care.

IV. Dempsey 2.0

This is the new Dempsey. The model that feels right. Any further redesigns will succeed only if they build on this one—the way every Mustang that isn’t true to the original Pony Car has fallen flat. Dempsey 2.0, the guy sitting here in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel, is the definitive model. The original specs—the stubble, the cheekbone, the jaw line, the concerned eyes—they were never the problem. They just weren’t attached to the right undercarriage. But this Dempsey, the rugged, experienced, world-weary Dempsey, when he projects through those features, even with a Motorola stuck to his ear, the likemelikemelikeme has been replaced.

“Oh my God,” shrieks a twiggy brunette in a miniskirt who spots Dempsey silhouetted against the pink wall, “he’s even cuter than on TV!”

And Dempsey is like, IknowIknowIknow, because that’s what his aura projects now. “I love it,” Dempsey admits. “I love having people know who I am, having people come up to me and say they were rooting for me all along. It was so humbling, so hard for me, that I can really enjoy this and not be a brat about it but instead be like, ‘I’m so lucky.’”

Grey’s Anatomy at first seemed like anything but a lucky break. Five weeks after production started in 2004, ABC shut it down, fearing they had Yet Another Medical Drama on their hands. After all, Seattle Grace, the setting of Grey’s, is a fairly typical television hospital, in that its physicians seem to have been hired more for their facial symmetry than their state-board results. And it deals in those peculiar and rare disorders that are epidemic on television dramas: There are far more cases of amnesia, priapism, and complicated sextuplet deliveries than, say, old ladies with high blood pressure. Yet the series was eventually re-animated—and has gone on to earn hit-show status, in part because of Dempsey 2.0, the cool core of the team, the dreaming neurosurgeon tormented by his love for his cuckolding wife (Kate Walsh) and lust for his mistress (Ellen Pompeo). (“Personally?” says Dempsey when asked who he would choose in real life. “Definitely the mistress. If my wife cheated on me I could never go back.”) Dempsey acknowledges how unlikely, and random, success at this stage of his career, and with something like this, really is. “It’s a soap opera, but it’s fun,” he says with a shrug. “And it’s the No. 3 show in the country. So we’re doing something right.”