When Comedy Central’s South Park first aired in 1997, it became an immediate hit and pop culture sensation. The show’s foul-mouthed stars — Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman — struck a chord with American audiences, and creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone became stars in their own right.
Before Parker and Stone became household names, one member of South Park‘s voice cast was already certified as a star. Isaac Hayes, the gold-certified soul singer, played the show’s voice of reason, Chef, during South Park‘s first nine years. When Hayes quit the show suddenly in 2006, reports abounded that he left due to its ongoing mockery of Scientology, a religion he practiced. The truth is much more complicated.
Isaac Hayes began his career with the legendary Memphis-based soul label Stax Records, cowriting a string of hits including “You Don’t Know Like I Know” and “Soul Man” for duo Sam & Dave. Critically acclaimed albums of his own soon followed, including the creative tour de force Hot Buttered Soul, which hit number one on Billboard’s R&B chart and number eight on the Billboard 200.
In 1972, Hayes scored an international hit with the theme to the “blaxploitation” film Shaft, for which he received an Academy Award. He also won a Grammy for the score of Shaft, as well as the next year’s Black Moses. Following an appearance in the concert film Wattstax, he began acting in action films including Truck Turner, Three Tough Guys, and Escape from New York. In 1988, he parodied these earlier roles in the Wayan’s Brothers spoof I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.
That sense of humor and willingness to laugh at himself led to Hayes securing the role of Chef in South Park. The character’s attempts to give the South Park boys guidance allowed Hayes to incorporate his musical talent, providing Chef with the opportunity to break into inappropriately dirty songs on a regular basis. His role in the series, and the subsequent Chef Aid album, introduced Hayes to a new generation of fans and led to a renewed interest in his music.
When Hayes left South Park, it came on the heels of the show’s high profile episodes taking aim at Scientology. Reports at the time suggested the religion pressured Hayes into cutting ties with the popular series. He mostly disappeared from the public eye until his death two years later.
Hayes’s son, Isaac Hayes III, joined a 2016 roundtable commemorating South Park’s 20th anniversary, and strove to set the record straight on why his father left the hit show.
“Isaac Hayes did not quit South Park; someone quit South Park for him,” the younger Hayes said. He explained that, in Jan. 2006, his father “had a stroke and lost the ability to speak.” Hayes went on to clarify that his father “really didn’t have that much comprehension, and he had to relearn to play the piano and a lot of different things.”
“He was in no position to resign under his own knowledge. At the time, everybody around my father was involved in Scientology — his assistants, the core group of people,” he said. “So someone quit South Park on Isaac Hayes’ behalf. We don’t know who.”