David Niven struck a serious tone as he took the podium at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles during the 1974 Academy Awards ceremony.
“If one reads the newspapers or listens to the news, it is quite obvious that the whole world is having a nervous breakdown,” the London-born star of “The Guns of Navarone” observed. A moment later, artist Robert Opel streaked across the stage buck-naked as if to prove Niven right.
Opel, his shaggy hair and mustache making him look like the most 1974 thing ever, flashed a peace sign as he ran through the TV camera frame, his junk bouncing up and down with each stride. The live audience both gasped and laughed, the band struck up a couple of bars of “That’s Entertainment,” and Niven recovered by making a quip about “shortcomings.” The show went on, and “The Sting” won Best Picture.
Instead of being taken to jail, Opel was whisked off backstage for a press conference.
“People shouldn’t be ashamed of being nude in public,” Opel remarked, standing in front of a towering Oscar statue. “Besides — it’s a hell of a way to launch a career.”
That career didn’t have much time left, however. Just five years later, Robert Opel was gunned down in his San Francisco art studio.
Opel moved to San Francisco from Los Angles after serving four months in county lockup for stripping naked in front of LA Police Chief Ed Davis, to protest the closing of nude beaches.
“The climate appears more conducive to civilized behavior,” Opel said about his new S.F. home. He opened Fey Way Studios at 1287 Howard St. in March 1978. With its exhibitions of works by Tom of Finland and Robert Mapplethorpe, Fey Way was an out gay art studio at a time when gay art was only shown in gay bars — even in San Francisco. Opel’s gallery was dismissed as “a sex shop” by mainstream newspapers, when it was mentioned at all.
Opel also published a sex zine called “Finger,” and produced a play titled “The Heartbreak of Psoriasis” starring Divine. Ever the provocateur, he staged a mock execution of Harvey Milk assassin Dan White at UN Plaza during the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 24, 1979 despite being reportedly warned not to by the S.F. police.
Around 9 p.m. on Sunday, July 8, 1979, Opel was entertaining friends Anthony Rogers and Camille O’Grady at Fey Way when a pair of men armed with a handgun and a sawed-off shotgun showed up demanding drugs and money. Opel was known to supplement his artist’s income by selling amphetamines and PCP, but he didn’t have any drugs in the studio that night.
“Get out of my space,” Opel said, standing his ground.
“I’m gonna blow your head off,” the man with the pistol said.
“You’re going to have to,” Opel replied. “There’s no money here.”
O’Grady and Rogers, who were being held in a backroom by the man with the shotgun, then heard a shot followed by the thud of Opel’s body hitting the floor. Opel had taken a bullet to the head. He was pronounced dead at 10:40 p.m.
After the shooting, the bandits fled as other tenants in the building started coming down the stairs to see what was going on. The men made off with only $5 and a camera.
O’Grady, an artist herself as well as “The Leather Queen of Folsom,” drew sketches of the robbers and handed them over to police along with some other information told to her by a musician friend of Opel’s. Working from this and other tips, homicide inspectors soon identified the hold-up men as Maurice J. Keenan and Robert Kelly. The duo was arrested along with Keenan’s wife, Linda Holt, at SFO on July 10 as the suspects were trying to flee to Miami.
Keenan, who had beaten up and shot (but not killed) another man during a meth binge only three days before killing Opel, escaped from jail three times before the close of his murder trial. This has fueled speculation that Opel was killed as a part of a police conspiracy, however, Bay Area county jails experienced a wave of escapes at the time. Keenan was one of 12 inmates who broke out of San Francisco’s Hall of Justice at gunpoint on April 29, 1980. Of those 12, five including Keenan had escaped before.
As the triggerman, Keenan was given the death penalty, but the sentence was overturned on appeal in 2000. Keenan is now serving a life sentence.
But Robert Opel lives on, as the go-to image of 70s craziness in TV news segments.
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