Andrew Lincoln departing 'The Walking Dead'

Posted May 30, 2018 2:55 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- What is potentially the biggest departure yet for "The Walking Dead" is happening this season: Andrew Lincoln, who plays lead character Rick Grimes, is planning to leave during season nine, according to multiple news reports.

Collider broke the story Tuesday. Others, including Entertainment Weekly and ComicBook.com, confirmed the news though AMC has declined to comment.

Lincoln's Georgia-based character opened the show in 2010 and has anchored it ever since. Love or hate Rick Grimes, he has been the glue that has kept the key group together. He has made some great decisions and some terrible ones. Rick has veered from rational to peace seeking to super violent to delusional.

Lincoln's character loves making grandiose speeches and has been punched enough times it's amazing he isn't permanently punch drunk. And the former cop has lost his wife and his son, leaving just his toddler daughter, Judith.

There was a major splinter at the end of season eight after Rick decided to keep Negan alive. Maggie has a team including Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) that wants Negan dead. Lauren Cohan, who has played Maggie since season two, is only contractually obligated to the show for six episodes and has already signed on for an ABC drama "Whiskey Cavalier."

Comicbook.com also said Danai Gurira ("Black Panther") is in her final year on the show contractually as Michonne. She arrived season three.

Lincoln has spent around seven months out of each year in metro Atlanta since the beginning of the show. He is known to be a stabilizing, welcome presence on set and is generous with fans at conventions such as Walker Stalker.

The show has reportedly jumped about two years in fictional time for season nine. Production began earlier this month and the show will return this fall.

The biggest departure from season eight was Chandler Riggs, who played Grimes' son, Carl.

When Lincoln leaves, just two actors from season one will remain: Reedus and Atlanta resident Melissa McBride, who plays Carol.

Though ratings have fallen the past three seasons, AMC has shown no inclination to cancel the show, which still generates huge audience numbers compared to most any other TV show. It also brought in a new showrunner Angela Kang with Scott Gimple being promoted to chief content officer for all things "Walking Dead" related. Gimple ran the show since season four.

Comicbook.com immediately began speculating how AMC could deal with Lincoln's departure. They can kill his character off or perhaps separate him from the main group. He could go on a Morgan-like journey. The latter two options would leave the door open for his future return.

The website also speculated that AMC is offering a huge bundle of cash to keep Reedus around longer since his character -- the laconic Daryl -- is arguably the most popular on the show.

Rodney Ho writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: rho(at)ajc.com.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service