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This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The year was 1974, and producer Michael Phillips had a good view of the stage during the 46th Academy Awards ceremony. He was nominated for Best Picture, and he was anxiously waiting for Elizabeth Taylor to appear and announce the winner. Suddenly a thin, dark-haired naked man came streaking out from stage left waving a two-fingered peace sign.
In the ensuing uproar, it fell to co-host David Niven, a debonair Brit best known for his portrayal of Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, to keep things moving along. As the streaker flashed the audience one last time before disappearing, Niven quipped, “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
After the awards resumed and Phillips’ movie, The Sting, won, a shocked Taylor approached him. “She was completely thrown by the naked man and she wanted to know if she flubbed her lines,” Phillips told The Hollywood Reporter, “We had to reassure her that she was fine, and everybody had a good laugh.”
The streaking incident became Hollywood lore overnight, and even now is widely cited as one of the Oscar’s most memorable moments, thanks in part to Niven’s quick riposte as the audience roared and tittered.
But the incident’s notoriety is also due to the unorthodox life and tragic demise of the streaker himself, a conceptual artist, photographer and gay rights activist named Robert Opel. The Oscar streak wasn’t Opel’s first. As a member of the L.A hippy scene, Opel had shown up naked to a few Los Angeles City Council meetings to protest the ban on nudity at area beaches. He was active in the gay liberation movement and in art circles. And he had a gig as a part-time photographer for the gay newspaper The Advocate.
But the streak catapulted him to instant stardom, both in and out of the art world. Immediately after the stunt, which he had carried off by donning a jumpsuit and masquerading as an entertainment journalist, a freshly clothed Opel stood on “Winner’s Row” and held a press conference with reporters, leading some to speculate later that the whole event had been a publicity stunt. There were other accolades. Opel appeared on the Mike Douglas show. And Allan Carr, who went on to produce Grease, hired him to streak a party for the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev.
Opel eventually landed in San Francisco where he established Fey-Way Studios, the nation’s first openly gay art gallery in 1978. He welcomed avant-garde, controversial work, and was an early supporter of photographer Robert Maplethorpe and Tom of Finland, both of whom had shows at Fey-Way that year. But Opel’s run was not to last. The very next year, Opel, who was just 40 years old at the time, was murdered when two men burst into the studio demanding money and drugs. They ushered Opel and two friends into a back room and tied them up. Then they shot Opel in the head.
Thirty years later, Opel’s nephew and namesake, Robert Oppel — his uncle had dropped one “P” to help protect his family name — returned to the scene of the crime during the research and filming of Uncle Bob, the 2011 movie he directed about his famous relative. “He held me in his arms once,” Oppel remembered, “But then he was murdered the year I was born.” Oppel suspects that the killing may have been more than a simple robbery, though he can’t prove it. The killers, both of whom are in jail, agreed to talk to Oppel for the film, but prison officials refused to grant permission.
In part to commemorate his uncle’s famous stunt, last week Oppel opened up a tribute to Opel’s work at a Hollywood art gallery.
(“Robert Opel: The Res-Erection of Fey-Way Studios” will run at Antebellum Gallery through March 14th, 1643 Las Palmas Ave. 90028.)
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