Opel was born in East Orange, New Jersey, in 1939. As a child, he lived in Canada, Kansas, and Kentucky before his family settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he attended grade school, high school, and college. Born Robert Oppel, he dropped a "p" from his name once becoming an activist to distance himself from his family in Pittsburgh. Opel was concerned his activities would cause the family embarrassment.
In college, Opel was elected to Student Congress, and served as chairman of a regional debate team. After graduation, he worked as a speechwriter for then-California Governor Ronald Reagan. In 1974, Opel taught English as a second language for the Los Angeles City Unified School District; he was fired from that job following the Oscars incident.
Opel owned his own photography business, Ideas Photographic. Among his clients were the LGBT publication The Advocate and Finger magazine, where he was also an editor.
In 1976, he announced his candidacy for the U.S. Presidency, using the slogans "Nothing to Hide" and "Not Just Another Crooked Dick," referring to his streaking incidents and President Richard Nixon, respectively. (Nixon had resigned from office in disgrace in 1974.)
In March 1978, Opel opened Fey Way Studios, a gallery of gay male art, at 1287 Howard Street in San Francisco. The gallery helped bring such erotic gay artists as Tom of Finland and Robert Mapplethorpe to national attention and showed others including Rex.
Streaking incident at the 1974 Oscars
On April 2, 1974, Opel apparently sneaked backstage posing as a journalist to gain entry to the stage at the 46th Academy Awards show at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. He ran naked past David Niven flashing a peace sign while Niven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor.
Unfazed, Niven turned to the audience and quipped, "Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen... 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?"
Later, some evidence arose suggesting that Opel's appearance was facilitated by the show's producer Jack Haley, Jr. as a stunt. Robert Metzler, the show's business manager, believed that the incident had been planned in some way. He said that, during the dress rehearsal, Niven had asked Metzler's wife to borrow a pen so he could write down the famous ad-lib. Opel apparently had to cut through an expensive seamless background curtain in order to reach the stage.
Opel was murdered on the night of July 7, 1979 during an attempted robbery of his San Francisco studio by Robert E. Kelly and Maurice Keenan. He was 39. Kelly and Keenan are both serving life sentences for his murder.
The murder and many questions surrounding what happened were explored in a 2010 documentary made by Opel's nephew, Robert Oppel (see below).
Opel's nephew, Robert Oppel, is the director of Uncle Bob, a 2010 documentary about the life and death of his uncle. The movie features Oppel as narrator, and includes interviews with John Waters, Divine, Danny Nicolleta, and others in the San Francisco scene who knew Opel. Oppel attempted to interview several people in connection with his uncle's murder, including the two men serving life in prison for the crime, but was denied a meeting by the prison.
On February 14, 2014, Robert Oppel and curator Rick Castro installed and premiered "Robert Opel: The Res-erection of Fey Way Studios", an art show at Antebellum gallery in Hollywood, California featuring original artworks, posters and memorabilia from Fey Way Studios circa 1978-1979.
The San Francisco South of Market Leather History Alley consists of four works of art along Ringold Alley honoring leather culture; it opened in 2017. One of the works of art is metal bootprints along the curb which honor 28 people (including Opel) who were an important part of the leather communities of San Francisco.
- Okeeffe, Kevin (26 March 2014). "The Life, Death, and Legacy of the Oscar Streaker". Advocate. Retrieved 28 February 2016.
...the elder Robert dropped the second p from his last name to distance his family from his crazy antics...
- "What You Won't See at Oscars On Cue: Behind Those Cameras on Oscar Night" by Steve Harvey, March 29, 1993. Retrieved 19 January 2015.
- "PEOPLE v. KELLY (1986) 183 CA3d 1235", Court of Appeals of California, First Appellate District, Division Three, July 31, 1986. Retrieved 12 June 2007.
- "Robert Opel's Fey-Way Studios". Retrieved 12 June 2007.
- Paull, Laura. "Honoring gay leather culture with art installation in SoMa alleyway – J". Jweekly.com. Retrieved 2018-06-23.
- Biography from Matt & Andrej Koymasky
- David Niven at the Internet Movie Database (contains above version of Niven's quote)
- "Biron on Robert Opel and other artists", Interview by Philip Vincent, San Francisco, 1996. Retrieved 12 June 2007.
- The Gay Book of Lists, By Leigh W. Rutledge, 2003, ISBN 1-55583-740-9. Google books link.