The 1974 Oscars Streaker: Stealing The Show By Showing His 'Shortcomings'
Robert Opal (left) streaking across the stage at the 1974 Academy Awards; co-host, David Niven (right). Source: (cnn.com)
The 1974 Academy Awards ceremony will always be remembered for its least expected performer -- the Oscar streaker. Robert Opel dashed across the stage in his birthday suit just as David Niven was trying to introduce co-host Elizabeth Taylor. It was not the first shocking Oscar moment -- just the previous year, Sacheen Littlefeather had declined Marlon Brando's Best Actor award -- but it's the most colorful. In fact, it's not just the most infamous moment in Oscars history; the Oscars Streaker Robert Opel's nude dash across the stage is also the most infamous streak ever executed.
Streaking was a huge fad in 1974, so the appearance of a nude man at an event wasn't that out of the ordinary. Streaking had emerged as both a popular way for protesters to attract attention and a mindless way for college students to push boundaries. Those who witnessed streakers often didn't know whether the nude person had an agenda to promote or was just doing it for the cheap thrill. Oscar streaker Robert Opel, it turns out, did have a political viewpoint, although he was also clearly in it for the thrill as well.
David Niven's Response Was Classic
Teacher, artist and gay rights activist, Robert Opel graced the stage at the 1974 Academy Awards by running across it flashing a peace sign (among other things) -- before leaving the stage, Opel turned to the audience to flash them one last time before he disappeared, stage right. With that, the stunned crowd erupted in laughter. After gathering his composure, the British actor quipped, "Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen." The audience again burst out laughing; Niven waited for them to settle down, then delivered this unforgettable observation:
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?
The unexpected incident became instant lore the second it happened. Even still, the Robert Opel streaking stunt is talked about and regularly tops lists of all-time most memorable Oscars moments.
Elizabeth Taylor Was Nonplussed
Following the streaker and her delayed introduction by Niven, Elizabeth Taylor said, “That’s a pretty hard act to follow.”
Elizabeth Taylor was Niven’s co-host when the streaker struck. Later she confided to producer Michael Phillips that she was worried she had messed up her lines. He told the Hollywood Reporter, “She was completely thrown by the naked man and she wanted to know if she flubbed her lines. We had to reassure her that she was fine, and everybody had a good laugh.” True to form, Elizabeth Taylor had done a great job playing off the shock of the moment.
David Niven's Unmatched Achievement
Not to be upstaged by Robert Opel’s performance, David Niven won an award for his own performance that night. He became (and remains) the only host to win an Oscar at the award ceremony he was hosting.
1974 Was Unofficially Known As The Year Of The Streaker
By the end of 1974, streaking had become so popular that it was commonplace. Ray Stevens seized the opportunity and cashed in on the pop-culture fad with his song "The Streak," which actually hit #1 on the Billboard pop chart that year.
The Academy Awards streaking incident was politically motivated but nonetheless lighthearted and amusing to those who witnessed it. The man behind the stunt, Robert Opel, was no stranger to the streaking scene, and the 1974 Academy Award ceremony was not the first place Opel had taken his show on the road. He had previously stripped down at Los Angeles City Council meetings in protest of nude beaches being banned. Opel took any opportunity to shed his threads to bring attention to his causes which included gay rights.
Opel didn't always protest nude. On other occasions, he dressed as a larger-than-life phallus called "Mr. Penis" to protest public-nudity laws.
Opel had changed the spelling of his last name which was originally spelled, Oppel, in an effort to spare his family any embarrassment.
There Was A Method To Robert Opel's Madness
To Opel, the 1974 Academy Award streaking stunt got the job done but wasn’t all fun and games. Robert Opel was a staunch believer in his political causes and was as serious as a heart attack about getting the word out. He was as dedicated to streaking as he would be a full-time job. Choosing to share the stage at the award ceremony was just the notoriety Opel was looking for. It launched his streaking career to new heights. After disappearing from the stage, Opel slipped into a jumpsuit and masqueraded as a journalist on “Winner’s Row.”
Instead of being arrested, Opel became a hero of sorts. He was quickly ushered backstage where he was asked to explain his behavior. He actually held a press conference after the streak, leading some to believe that his performance was a staged publicity stunt for the award production. Robert Opel simply told reporters, “It’s one of those one-time things.”
Robert Opel admitted to the Academy Awards streaking stunt being part of his master plan and part of an ongoing piece of performance art. Opel was determined to taunt what he considered a “conformist" society. According to his nephew and namesake, “It was a social comment.”
Even By '70s Standards, Opel Led An Unorthodox Lifestyle
Robert Opel was an artsy type and gay rights activist as well as a hippie in Los Angeles. He was staunchly antiestablishment and wanted to get the word out in the form of “art.” Eventually, in 1978, Opel opened Fey-Way Studios in San Francisco. Fey-Wey was the first gallery in the U.S. to cater specifically to gay art enthusiasts. The gallery was open to all works of art that were controversial and unconventional.
Opel's story has a tragic and shocking ending. The year after he opened his gallery, two men burst in demanding money and drugs. He and his friends were tied up in a back room where Opel was shot in the head and died. The two intruders, Robert E. Kelly and Maurice Keenan, are serving life in prison for Opel's murder.
Tags: Academy Awards | David Niven | Elizabeth Taylor | Oscars | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Remember This?... | Streaking
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