It was 1974. Linda Blair was up for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, and “The Way We Were” performed by Miss Barbra Streisand had just won for Best Original Song in a movie. As David Niven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor to present the award for Best Picture, 33-year-old artist/photographer/gay activist Robert Opel paraded out from backstage, butt naked and flashing a peace sign. The event was further immortalized by Niven’s fast wit, when he 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?”
Now, 40 years later, the Hollywood Reporter has unearthed the story of Opel and his tragic demise.
As it turns out, flashing Hollywood’s elite on Tuesday, April 2, 1974 was not the first time Opel had gotten naked before an audience. “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,” Scott Johnson at THR writes. “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 46th annual Academy Awards was Opel’s most high profile streak, and one that turned him into an instant cult celebrity. He was invited to The Mike Douglas Show, as well as to streak professionally at A-list Hollywood parties.
In 1978, Opel moved to San Francisco and opened a gay art gallery at 1287 Howard Street. Fey-Way Studios featured avant-garde artwork with an erotic edge, and was an early supporter of such greats as photographer Robert Maplethorpe and fetish artist Tom of Finland.
One year after moving to San Francisco, on the night of July 7, 1979, Opel was murdered by Robert E. Kelly and Maurice Keenan during a robbery of the studio. The two assailants demanded money and drugs. When Opel refused, they shot him 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,” Johnson reports. “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.”
Last week, Oppel opened up a tribute to his uncle’s work at the Antebellum Gallery, a fetish gallery in Hollywood. The show runs through March 15.