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365 Days of Oscar: Remembering the Oscar Streaker

Fifty years ago today, the unthinkable happened at what should be a civilized affair — the Academy Awards. When host David Niven introduced the final presenter, he said, “If one reads the newspapers or listens to the news, it is quite obvious that the whole world is having a nervous breakdown.” But in Hollywood, he went on, “we turn out entertainment.”

That was how Hollywood wanted to see itself: as the unifier of a country fractured by Vietnam and Watergate. Niven, a stiff-upper-lip charmer, could glide above America’s political paroxysms, and he might have gone on talking were it not for his friend Elizabeth Taylor, whom he was introducing. “Hurry up, David,” she had told him backstage. “Get me out of there fast.” And so Niven moved on to introduce the Best Picture presenter, whom he called a “very important contributor to world entertainment, and someone quite likely—”

But before he could finish he was interrupted by a squall of screams. It took Niven a moment to realize what the commotion was. Glancing to his right, he saw a man with floppy brown hair and a bushy mustache, flashing a peace sign as he ran across the stage—naked.

The audience, which included Jack Nicholson, Liza Minnelli, Paul McCartney, and Groucho Marx, along with sixty-four million viewers at home, watched in disbelief. Pam Grier, who had been given the ceremonial job of “Oscar guardian,” saw it all from backstage. “I was standing in the wings and saw this flash—I have great peripheral vision,” she later told the Philadelphia Inquirer. Taylor, Grier said, was backstage fixing her hair: “When the streaker went across the stage, she just started laughing.”

The man disappeared stage right, and the gasps turned to chatter. Niven did a double take as the orchestra struck up a jaunty tune. He adjusted his bow tie and shrugged. “Well, ladies and gentlemen,” he said coolly. “That was almost bound to happen.” As the crowd’s murmuring gave way to tentative laughter, Niven rode the moment like a surfer. “But isn’t it fascinating,” he continued, “to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”

The audience roared. Niven had taken a would-be nervous breakdown and turned it into entertainment. With that, he brought out Taylor to hand the final prize to “The Sting.” (“I’m nervous,” Taylor brayed onstage. “That really upset me!”)

The streaker was taken not to the authorities but to the pressroom, where he appeared in a blue jumpsuit unzipped to the waist and posed alongside a jumbo Oscar. He identified himself as Robert Opel, an advertising man. What he didn’t say was that he actually worked for the Los Angeles school system, and that he was gay. “It just occurred to me that it might be an educative thing to do,” he said. “You know, people shouldn’t be ashamed of being nude in public. Besides, it’s a hell of a way to launch a career.”

Nearly half a century later, the “Oscar streak” is remembered as a blip of seventies counterculture amid the Hollywood glitz. But who was Robert Opel, and why did he do what he did? Conspiracy theories surfaced immediately. Had Opel been a plant to get ratings? How had he circumvented the “security operation of truly royal proportions”? And how did Niven have such a well-crafted zinger ready?

Niven’s crack that this was “almost bound to happen” was no exaggeration. About four months earlier, a Van Nuys housewife had run nude through the streets of the San Fernando Valley. Time reported on the “growing Los Angeles-area fad,” and a d.j. at KMET set up a tip line that locals could call with “streaker alerts.” By March, the trend had gone national. A streaker ran across a basketball court during halftime at a game between the University of Florida and the University of Alabama. In Lansing, a man wearing only boots and a ski mask darted through the Michigan House of Representatives. Nudists appeared on bicycles or floating with parachutes. At the University of Georgia, the student body set a record when fifteen hundred and forty-three people streaked across campus. As Time wrote, “Probably not since the days of the ancient Greeks have so many exposed so much to so many.”

Psychologists theorized about the craze. Streaking was an irreverent attack on social mores, or an escape from the stresses of Watergate and inflation. Or it was a fun-house mirror of the guerrilla warfare in Vietnam: spontaneous, low-tech, and disruptive. Or maybe it was just a fun thing for college kids to do.

The idea that someone might streak the Oscars had been inevitable enough that an alternate theory emerged: that the show’s writers had pre-written a line on an “idiot card,” to be used in the event of a streak, which was then held up for Niven. Years later, his son David Niven, Jr., posited that his father would have been “prepared with a line.” But Niven’s other son, Jamie, told me, “No, no. That was spontaneous.” Watching at home in New York, Jamie had seen a flash of anger in his father’s eyes, which reminded him of the look he had gotten when he brought home a bad report card. The incursion, he could tell, “pissed him off.”

The show’s producer, Jack Haley, Jr., was close with the Niven family, and Jamie later asked him if the streak was planned. “No way,” Haley answered, adding, “David wouldn’t have stood for that.” The telecast’s director, Marty Pasetta—who had to divert the cameras so as not to catch Opel’s manhood onscreen—claimed that Niven had pre-written the line himself. “I imagine David Niven told Marty that, if somebody was going to streak the show, he had a line prepared,” Pasetta’s widow, Elise, told me.

Opel always maintained that he had acted alone. Days after the Oscars, he was flown to Philadelphia to appear on “The Mike Douglas Show,” where he sat, wearing a cowboy hat, next to Bea Arthur. Douglas asked him, “Was this a setup?”

“The press keeps asking that,” Opel replied. “Nobody believes that it wasn’t set up.”

Opel’s version of events went like this: He had sneaked through the security checkpoint in his jumpsuit with a press pass that he had borrowed from a friend. Backstage, he acted cool, lending a hand to anyone who needed it. When the show started, he hid in the scenery and shed his jumpsuit. There were so many cables underfoot that he worried about getting electrocuted, but he stuck to his plan—to wait for the final envelope, for maximum drama. When the time came, he broke through the cyclorama.

The moment passed in a blur. “I expected that they would seize me,” he told Douglas. But when he got to the other side of the stage everyone was too stunned to do anything. He circled back to where he’d left his clothes and got dressed. Just as two security guards were heading toward him, an Academy official intercepted him and brought him to the press. “I thought it was very interesting that Elizabeth Taylor could be flustered by the sight of a nude man in any context,” Opel told the Los Angeles gay newspaper the Advocate, where he had been contributing as a man-on-the-street photographer.

Hollywood embraced its new overnight star—for a time. The manager Allan Carr, known for his blowout house parties in Benedict Canyon, hired Opel to appear at a party for Rudolf Nureyev. Carr wore a striped caftan; Opel wore a stiff collar and tie and nothing else. He streaked the party, then returned in a silver-and-black cape and bikini briefs, and announced that he was going into comedy, because “the possibilities as a streaker are very limited.” A few days later, at Philadelphia’s Café Erlanger, he made his standup début, in a (clothed) performance titled “Letting It All Hang Out.” In the middle of his set—described by one reviewer as a “rambling string of observations”—a man wearing only an earring walked onstage and gave him a kiss. The streaker had been streaked.

Opel told Mike Douglas that the ultimate streak would be to run through a White House press conference while the President was saying, “I have nothing to hide.” (“You wouldn’t dare!” Bea Arthur brayed.) Six years after Andy Warhol made his fifteen-minutes-of-fame prophecy, and decades before “going viral” entered the lexicon, Opel epitomized both. He was famous for being shameless, and had found the perfect foil in Niven, whose dry deadpan matched Opel’s bawdy exhibitionism. Hollywood had been trying for years to keep up with the counterculture, and now it had crashed the town’s most sacred ritual.

Even as Opel’s fifteen minutes ticked down, his quest for exposure was just getting started. The Oscars were not his first or his last brush with history, and five years later he’d be dead. Opel opened a queer-centered art gallery in 1978 in San Francisco, Fey Way Studios, which gave an audience to artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe. On July 7, 1979, burglars had broken into his studio, and in a confrontation, shot and killed Opel. He was 39 years old, and Fey Way Studios closed soon after. (For a more in-depth analysis of the life and career of Opel, his nephew, also named Robert Oppel, made a 2010 documentary titled Uncle Bob, with Oppel and curator Rick Castro briefly revitalizing Fey Way, and Opel’s legacy.)

Opel’s dash across the Academy Awards stage has been memorialized as one of the Oscars’ weirdest moments, an act of delightful disobedience. “Robert was dream fulfillment to Oscar viewers,” Fritscher said. “Every year, his memory puts an edge of suspense on the Oscars, like a promise that something unscripted and exciting and sexy might happen.”

Weeks before Opel was shot, he and O’Grady were sitting around Fey-Way with a joint, as Fritscher recorded their musings for Drummer. The streak came up. “It’s like a Möbius,” Opel said. “I’m destined to be always running nude past the TV screen forever and ever and ever.”

This article is part of a special year-long series of anecdotes, reflections and thoughts about the Academy Awards.