The naked, surprising, and tragic truth about the 1974 Oscars streaker

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On the night of the 1974 Academy Awards, English teacher Robert Opel made Oscar history when he stripped naked and ran across the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion behind actor and Oscar cohost David Niven. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen,” said the actor. Public disrobing was very much in fashion at the time. The same year Opel disrupted the Oscars, country singer Ray Stevens topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart with his novelty track “The Streak.” But while Niven may have shrugged it off, reporters were happy to hear what Opel had to say when, instead of being arrested, he was ushered backstage to explain himself. “It’s one of those one-time things,” he said.

In truth, Opel’s stunt was part of a plan — or ongoing piece of performance art — designed to tweak the nose of what he regarded as a too-conformist society. “It was a social comment,” says Opel’s nephew, Robert Oppel. (Yes, the same name as his uncle, but Uncle Robert had dropped one p in his last name so as not to embarrass his family.) In addition to flashing the Oscar audience, Opel developed his own costumed character, Mr. Penis, and also stripped at a meeting of the Los Angeles City Council. A gay rights activist, he opened an art gallery in San Francisco in 1978, Fey-Way Studios, that showcased homoerotic works.

In 1979, Opel staged his last piece of performance art. The previous November, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated by Dan White. In May, White was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder. In protest, Opel dressed in leathers as “Gay Justice” and fake-­executed a friend representing White. Soon after, on the night of July 7, a pair of burglars burst into Opel’s gallery demanding drugs and money. When Opel refused, one fatally shot him.