While Academy Awards will no doubt have its share of drama and surprises tonight, there will likely be few incidents of public nudity. That wasn’t always the case with the Oscars.
Back in 1974, co-host David Niven was about to introduce Elizabeth Taylor when a long-haired, mustached nude man sprinted out on stage and flashed a peace sign (among other things) before a shocked audience. He jogged from one side of the stage to the other before slipping off into the wings, as Henry Mancini cued his orchestra to start playing music.
After he regained his composure, Niven 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?”
Right from the beginning, however, some wondered if the incident wasn’t in fact planned by producers hoping to give the audience a jolt. Instead of arresting the streaker (and carting him directly to a Super Max prison, as would happen today), he was given a press conference.
At the press conference, he said that his name was Robert Opel and falsely described himself as an “advertising executive” during the press conference. When asked why he did the deed, Opel responded, “You know, people shouldn’t be ashamed of being nude in public. Besides — it is a hell of a way to launch a career.”
Though he was destined to go down in history as the naked Oscar guy, he was also an avant-garde artist and a leader in the nascent gay rights movement. After his brush with fame, Opel moved to the Bay Area where he founded Fey-Wey Studios, which was one of the first art galleries to showcase artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Tom of Finland. He also staged an Anita Bryant look-alike contest at the height of the former beauty queen’s anti-gay public campaign. He was murdered in his gallery in 1979 during a bungled robbery.
Bay Area artist and photographer BIRON, who was friends with Opel during his San Francisco days, remembered him fondly. “Uncompromising and unapologetic, he blurred the lines between art and life as he traveled beyond the confines of accepted behavior. Harvey Milk and then Robert Opel both killed within a few months.”
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.