In May, Collider reported that the British actor was to leave the series after nine years appearing in just six episodes of the forthcoming season when it premieres later this year. The move is said to make Daryl Dixon - played by Norman Reedus - the show's new main character. These turn of events are teased in the bumper first trailer which was released last night (21 July).
Lincoln showed up for the show's Comic-Con panel where he revealed the news to devastated fans.
“This will be my last season playing the part of Rick Grimes,” he told the crowd, adding: “Hear me out, please. I love this show. It means everything to me. I love the people who make this show. I promise not to cry. I've done enough crying on screen.
“I'm particularly fond of the people who watch the show. This has been the most extraordinary, amazing and beautiful experience of my career and made largely because of you guys and the relationship we have, here, with you.” Earlier in the day, Robert Kirkman - the creator of the AMC series' comic book source material - was asked about Lincoln's exit during an interview with IMDB at San Diego Comic-Con.
“It’s looking that way," Variety reports him as saying, adding: “It does make the difference between the comic and the show more pronounced. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about Andrew Lincoln. This is a human being. This is someone I have known for almost a decade, somebody that I love. He’s been sweating in Georgia away from his family for so long.”
There's no denying that Lincoln's departure spells trouble for the series that has seen falling ratings and middling reviews for its past few seasons despite remaining one of the most consistently exciting shows on television. Last season saw the departure of another original star - Chandler Riggs, who played Lincoln's on-screen son, Carl. Following Lennie James' jump to spinoff Fear the Walking Dead, the only remaining original characters on the main show are Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus).
Reedus has been offered a substantial pay-rise to become what will essentially be the hero of the show and one of the highest-paid actors on TV.
Lincoln's departure may come as a shock, however, producers of the show have insisted the series could continue without its lead star for many years now. Just months ago, Lincoln himself - during an interview with The Independent - notably hastened to answer a question regarding how long he'd like to remain on the series.
Lauren Cohan (Maggie Rhee) will also be in minimal episodes of the show's forthcoming season due to a lead role in new ABC comedy Whiskey Cavalier.
The Walking Dead returns to AMC on 7 October with its UK premiere expected the following evening on FOX