South Park declares war on Tom Cruise

Cartoon's parody of Scientology is taken off air, prompting accusations of censorship

He has defeated enemy fighter pilots and alien forces. But now Tom Cruise faces his most dangerous foe ever: a foul-mouthed foursome of pre-teens.

If that seems sort of humiliating, wait for the rest. While the children are no more real than the mechanical invaders in War of the Worlds, Cruise's campaign to crush them is far from fictional. It's Tom Cruise vs South Park. And it promises to be fun.

South Park is the less than respectful television animation series that has sustained its popularity for a decade because of its fearless satirising of anyone and everyone. It drew headlines early last week, however, when musician Isaac Hayes, who since 1997 has been the voice of Chef, suddenly upped and left in a huff.

Hayes declared that South Park, which follows the hell-raising of the four kids, had gone too far in its lampooning of religion. Specifically, he was cross about its recent mocking of the Church of Scientology. Hayes is a Scientologist. So is Cruise.

The departure of Hayes created some publicity for the show and its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But now things are even more interesting. Comedy Central, the channel that broadcasts it in the US, was scheduled to air a repeat of the episode that had so upset Hayes on Wednesday night. But then, suddenly, it didn't.

South Park fans cried censorship. Why had Comedy Central yanked the episode? They now think they have the answer: Tom Cruise is the culprit. According to several Hollywood websites, he used his considerable Tinseltown influence to muzzle the show.

Parker and Stone are not taking this lying down. "So, Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for earth has just begun!" the two said in a statement that seemed to parody Scientology as science fiction. "Temporarily anozinizing our episode will NOT stop us from keeping Thetans forever trapped in your pitiful man-bodies. Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail! Hail Xenu!!!"

But for the epic battle, Cruise has a secret weapon. It is alleged that he threatened to withdraw from any promotional activity for his next film, Mission: Impossible III, out on 5 May. The movie has been made by Paramount, which is owned by Viacom. And Viacom owns Comedy Central.

In the controversial episode, one of the characters, Stan, takes a Scientology test and scored so highly that disciples of the religion are crowding his home declaring him their new leader. And, wouldn't you know it, Cruise is there too, waiting in Stan's bedroom. He asks Stan what he thinks of his acting. Stan is not kind, and a deeply offended Cruise hides in the bedroom closet. Then the episode veers into the territory of Cruise's sexuality. Stan begs him to come out of the closet. About 40 times.

Everyone involved is denying everything, of course. Comedy Central says it pulled the episode so it could run two episodes featuring Chef as a tribute to Hayes. Paramount says Cruise never made threats. And Cruise, through a spokesman, said the same.

And no one believes a word of it. The Los Angeles Times dubbed the flap Closetgate. "For Stone and Parker, Closetgate will be the gift that keeps on giving," it said.

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