It’s perhaps the funniest Oscar moment of all time. On April 4, 1974, while David Niven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor to present the Best Picture gong, a man suddenly streaked across the stage, flashing a peace sign… and a whole lot more.
Niven, unflappable as ever, cut him down with the epic put-down; “But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
The crowd was in stitches and an Oscar legend was born, but the story behind the quip is a lot more mysterious and, sadly, tragic.
The streaker was 33-year-old Robert Opel, a well-known figure in the gay activism scene throughout the seventies, as well as a prominent artist.
He was already notorious for stripping off during Los Angeles Council Meetings and had been arrested for lewdness (he eventually received probation). Opel believed that the government was repressing people’s “sexual freedom”.
Highly political, by 1974 he was working as a photographer for The Advocate magazine, which is how he blagged himself a press pass for the Oscars.
Nonetheless, it’s still not clear how he got backstage. When there he hid amongst the cables inside an enormous piece of scenery, lurking until Taylor’s appearance because, at the time, she was the biggest star in the world and it guaranteed to give him most exposure (excuse the pun).
After running across the stage, giving the two-fingered peace salute, Opel was amazingly allowed to give a press conference by TV station NBC, when he lied about his profession (“advertising executive”) and said he did it because “people shouldn’t be ashamed of being nude in public. Besides - it is a hell of a way to launch a career.”
And so it was. He appeared in chat shows, launched a high profile campaign against country singer-turned anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant, staged a mock execution for Dan White, the man who murdered gay politician Harvey Milk, and eventually opened an influential San Francisco art gallery.
Tragically his life was cut short when two drug dealers murdered him in 1979 during an attempted robbery. It emerged during their trial that Opel owed them money.
His death has ensured that events leading up to his iconic streak remained shrouded in mystery. That he was even able to get on stage during the broadcast, and was given a press conference by NBC afterwards, lead some to suggest the prank was planned by producer Jack Heley Jr. - as did the brilliance of Niven’s quip. But according to pal and fellow artist Jack Fritscher, the prank was all Opel’s own work: “he did it as a piece of performance art”.
The most obvious legacy of the event is the music that now now starts playing if a speech overruns (see Christian Bale in 2011). At one point the Academy even used blinding spotlights to rid the stage of guests who overstayed their welcome.
We assume nowadays it’s also a bit trickier to sneak backstage…