Robert Opel (born Robert Oppel, 1939 – 1979) was an American photographer and art gallery owner most famous as the man who streaked during the 46th Academy Awards in 1974.
Opel was born in East Orange, New Jersey, in 1939. As a child, he lived in Canada, Kansas, and Kentucky before his family settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he attended grade school, high school, and college. Born Robert Oppel, he dropped a “p” from his name once becoming an activist to distance himself from his family in Pittsburgh. Opel was concerned his activities would cause the family embarrassment.
In college, Opel was elected to Student Congress, and served as chairman of a regional debate team. After graduation, he worked as a speechwriter for then-California Governor Ronald Reagan. In 1974, Opel taught English as a second language for the Los Angeles City Unified School District; he was fired from that job following the Oscars incident.
Opel owned his own photography business, Ideas Photographic. Among his clients were the gay publication The Advocate and Finger magazine, where he was also an editor.
In 1976, he announced his candidacy for the U.S. Presidency, using the slogans “Nothing to Hide” and “Not Just Another Crooked Dick,” referring to his streaking incidents and President Richard Nixon, respectively. (Nixon had resigned from office in disgrace in 1974.)
In 1977, as a carpenter Jim Stewart built San Francisco’s first known homoerotic art gallery, Fey-Way Studios, at 1287 Howard Street. The gallery, owned by Opel, helped bring such erotic gay artists as Tom of Finland and Robert Mapplethorpe to national attention and showed others, such as Rex.
Streaking incident at the 1974 Oscars
On April 2, 1974, Opel apparently snuck backstage posing as a journalist to gain entry to the stage at the 46th Academy Awards show at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. He ran naked past David Niven flashing a peace sign while Niven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor.
After breaking into laughter momentarily, Niven regained his composure, turned to the audience and quipped, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen… But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
Later, some evidence arose suggesting that Opel’s appearance was facilitated by the show’s producer, Jack Haley, Jr., as a stunt. Robert Metzler, the show’s business manager, believed that the incident had been planned in some way. He said that, during the dress rehearsal, Niven had asked Metzler’s wife to borrow a pen so he could write down the famous ad-lib. Opel apparently had to cut through an expensive seamless background curtain in order to reach the stage.
The episode made Opel something of a celebrity. Producer Allan Carr even asked him to streak at a party for Rudolph Nureyev.
Murder of Opel
Opel was murdered on the night of July 7, 1979, during an attempted robbery of his San Francisco studio by Robert E. Kelly and Maurice Keenan. He was 39. Kelly and Keenan are both serving life sentences for his murder.
Opel’s nephew, Robert Oppel, is the director of Uncle Bob, a 2010 documentary about the life and death of his uncle. The movie features Oppel as narrator, and includes interviews with John Waters, Divine, Danny Nicoletta, and others in the San Francisco scene who knew Opel. Oppel attempted to interview several people in connection with his uncle’s murder, including the two men serving life in prison for the crime, but was denied a meeting by the prison.
On February 14, 2014, Robert Oppel and curator Rick Castro installed and premiered “Robert Opel: The Res-erection of Fey Way Studios”, an art show at Antebellum gallery in Hollywood, California, featuring original artworks, posters and memorabilia from Fey-Way Studios circa 1978–1979.
In 2017, the art installation known as the San Francisco South of Market Leather History Alley was installed; in it Opel (among others) is honored with a bronze bootprint displaying his name and a short statement about him.