Late last month, comic Dave Chappelle called his bosses at the Viacom Inc.-owned cable network Comedy Central with some distressing news. He had suddenly decided to quit "Chappelle's Show," the enormously popular sketch series that has made him a $50-million star and a household name among young fans of his outrageous spoofs and impersonations.
The reasons were murky, and network President Doug Herzog stayed on the line for a long time, working hard to turn his star around. Days later, Chappelle relented and said he'd stay after all, according to two sources familiar with the situation.
But then matters unraveled entirely. Chappelle, who failed to report to work April 29, fled to South Africa and mysteriously cut off contact at least temporarily with some of his family members and closest advisors, according to sources inside Comedy Central and close to Chappelle. The following week, the network announced that the third-season premiere of its No. 2 show (after "South Park") would be postponed indefinitely.
"It's crushing on a lot of levels," Herzog said in a phone interview Friday. "There's no question about it, he was the hottest thing on the network.... It's tough to lose your big power hitter like that."
Clearly, Chappelle's disappearing act comes at a bad time for Comedy Central, which has been piling up record ratings and counting on fresh Chappelle episodes to help launch a full slate of new programs this summer. Now, executives can't say when -- or even if -- "Chappelle's Show" will return.
The 31-year-old Chappelle, like many performers, has been known to reschedule tapings at the last minute and engage in other unpredictable behavior, Herzog said. But his abrupt and unexplained departure left virtually everyone close to the comic baffled.
"He's never just dropped off the face of the planet like this," Herzog said.
Chappelle's publicist, Matt Labov, declined to comment but confirmed certain details for this article.
As recently as three years ago, Chappelle was a hardworking if somewhat obscure performer with multiple failed network sitcoms under his belt. But since "Chappelle's Show" began in 2002, his spirited goofs on such entertainers as actor Samuel L. Jackson and late funk singer Rick James have turned into a major profit machine for Viacom and Comedy Central.
The first season of "Chappelle" has become the bestselling TV series DVD of all time, with nearly 3 million copies sold, according to Viacom-owned distributor Paramount Home Entertainment. The second-season DVD will be released May 24, intended to coincide with the third-season premiere.
The sudden postponement of the program forced Herzog and his team to scramble, rescheduling series premieres from comics D.L. Hughley and Carlos Mencia. The network originally hoped that Chappelle's vast popularity could encourage viewers to sample those programs. The network also had sold millions of dollars in advertising tied to the show, although executives say much, if not all, of that will be moved to other programs.
But far beyond any question of economic fallout is the mystery of Chappelle himself: how a gifted young performer who had struggled for years to find success suddenly went AWOL just as he seemed poised for his greatest triumph. A landmark deal now in peril guaranteed Chappelle at least $35 million and as much as $50 million if copies of his DVD continued to sell well.
The eldest of three children, Chappelle grew up in Washington, D.C., and Ohio, where his late father taught music at Antioch College. He first tried his hand at stand-up comedy at age 14, hitting open-mike nights at Washington comedy clubs, accompanied by his mother, a Unitarian minister.
Encouraged by the reaction, he took his act to New York, where his first appearance onstage at the Apollo Theater was greeted with boos. Undaunted, Chappelle moved to New York at age 17 and began to hit the local comedy clubs. Within a few years, television and film deals followed. He co-starred in "Buddies," a 1996 midseason ABC sitcom that was quickly canceled. Disney was impressed enough, however, to sign him for a $1-million development contract.
David McFadzean, executive producer of "Buddies," recalled in an interview this week that Chappelle exhibited no personal problems during the arduous, months-long development and production process. "The show was troubled, but not because of David," McFadzean said. "He was alarmingly regular for a TV actor."
The producers were especially impressed with Chappelle's unusual comic gifts. "He had the ability to say ... controversial things," McFadzean said, "but he said them in such a way that he was charming and likable. There was no question in my mind that once he found the right place for his voice, people were going to love him."
As Chappelle kept struggling to find that place, however, he seemed to grow increasingly bitter at the Hollywood system.