On Sunday afternoon, New Yorker writer Michael Schulman posted a tweet promising “a wild & crazy story coming out in tomorrow’s New Yorker.” The piece, he wrote, involved “the 1970s San Francisco leather scene, Robert Mapplethorpe, gay liberation, sex, drugs, murder, and—naturally—the Oscars.”
On Monday morning, Schulman’s in-depth chronicle of Oscars streaker Robert Opel — detailing his life, his 15 minutes of fame, and his brief subsequent odyssey through the worlds of 1970s art, sex, and politics — went live on the magazine’s website. It’s a fascinating, rollicking read, and an essential bit of queer history.
Here are just a few of the juiciest bits.
Opel, of course, shot — or rather dashed — to fame on April 2, 1974, when he ran naked across the stage at the forty-sixth Academy Awards, just as actor David Niven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor, who was presenting the final award of the evening for Best Picture. As Schulman tells the story, rather than being escorted out of the building, Opel was instead taken to meet the press.
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“It just occurred to me that it might be an educative thing to do,” Opel told reporters. “You know, people shouldn’t be ashamed of being nude in public. Besides, it’s a hell of a way to launch a career.”
Opel was openly gay and had been contributing photos to The Advocate. An Eagle Scout as a kid, he would later return his medal due to the Boy Scouts of America’s anti-gay policies. His sister believes he was kicked out of the Peace Corps after college for being gay and was later fired from his job as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign because of his sexuality.
After his 1974 Oscars stunt, he stripped down at an L.A. City Council meeting to protest a ban on public nudity. He was arrested and served four months in jail.
He announced an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the White House following Richard Nixon’s resignation. Appearing naked at his first press conference, he said, “I’ve got nothing to hide, and I want to give everyone a chance to look over my qualifications.”
For a time, he worked as an editor and contributor at porn magazines, before relocating from L.A. to San Francisco, where he dove into the city’s leather scene, opening a gallery called Fey-Way Studios which featured artists like Tom of Finland and Robert Mapplethorpe. One anecdote Schulman recounts involving the then largely unknown Mapplethorpe is too scandalous to repeat here!
Schulman contrasts Opel and Harvey Milk, the former an avatar of counter-cultural liberation, the latter of, if not assimilation, infiltration. Opel reportedly once submitted a potential poster to Milk’s campaign for San Francisco City Supervisor which was deemed too risqué. Still, Opel was enraged by Milk’s assassination on November 27, 1978, by Board of Supervisors colleague Dan White. He protested White’s “shockingly light” sentence and his so-called “Twinkie defense” at San Francisco’s 1979 Gay Freedom Day Parade. Appearing on a float as “Gay Justice,” Opel “executed” a Dan White look-alike with a prop gun.
Two weeks later, Opel was murdered by one of two men who entered his gallery late one night demanding drugs and money. As late as 1990, rumors circulated that Opel was set up in retaliation for his Dan White stunt.