The Six Degrees: Kevin Bacon at TEDxMidwest (Full Transcript)

I want to start at the end: most of us have contemplated our own death, who’s going to be at the funeral, are they going to cry, stuff like that. I don’t think that’s morbid, honestly, I mean, I think it’s OK to wonder about a world that doesn’t have us in it, but I’m an actor so the depths of my self-involvement runs very, very deep and this fantasy plays out a little differently for me.

Bob Dylan once told me, “Never drop a name.” I was on an airplane one time with Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman, and Tom Cruise and all I could think was, “If this plane goes down, I’m not even going to make the headlines.” So let’s say I don’t die in a crash with bigger stars than me, and I actually get an obituary. I lately thought it probably is going to read, “Actor Kevin Bacon, dead. No Oscars but at least he has a game named after him: ‘The six degrees of Kevin Bacon.'” In case you haven’t heard of this game, the idea is that any actor, alive or dead, can be connected to me through our work in six steps or less. I’m going to give you an example that I had to actually go to “The oracle of Bacon” website to find because I’m good at a couple of things but playing this game is not one of them.

I randomly picked Rudolf Valentino. Rudolf Valentino,  in 1922, was in “Beyond the rocks,” I’m sure we all remember that one. He was in it with Gertrude Astor, who did “Daddy long legs” in 1955, with James Cromwell, who was in “Beyond all boundaries” in 2009 with me. That gives Rudolf Valentino a Bacon number of three.

I can pretty much guarantee that at this point, Rudolf Valentino does not give a shit. So, how did this all start? In 1994, I’m minding on my own business, I’m making movies, I’m trying to raise my family, and I don’t remember exactly how I first heard about it, but it just set started to seep into my life; people would come up to me and say things like, “You know, my cousin made up a game about you,” or, “Dude, I’m so hungover, man, I was in a bar last night. We were playing your game, I got shitfaced, I am a mess.” I was absolutely horrified. I know it’s a cliche, but actors, behind all the muscles, and the shining white teeth, and the low-cut dresses, it really is just masking a lot of very, very deep, deep insecurity.

So when I heard this, I thought this was a joke at my expense. I thought I’m going to be a laughing stock. People are basically saying, “Can you believe that this lightweight can be connected to the greats like Laurence Olivier, or Marlon Brando, or Meryl Streep?” And the pathetic thing is that I was actually working with Meryl Streep at the time. Someone then told me that the guys who invented this game were going to be on “The Howard Stern Show.” I thought to myself, “OK, that’s it; that’s the beginning of the end of my career”.

The game was invented by four college students from Albright College which is in Reading, Pennsylvania, not too far from where I grew up in downtown Philadelphia. They are sitting around their dorm-room one day, one of my pictures – one of my least memorable movies, actually is playing on a TV screen, and they say, “Maybe we can figure out this connection thing.” So the Internet is just really starting to explode with these ideas, and it moves from Albright College to the web and takes off.

I’m in the middle of promoting a film, I can’t remember which one, and I get an offer to be on a new MTV night time talk show called The Jon Stewart Show, and I come to find out that the Kevin Bacon guys – which is what they are now being called, The Kevin Bacon guys – are also booked on the same show. I think to myself, “I’m not doing this show. I am going to be the punchline of an hour-long joke.” I was furious; but I stopped and I said to myself, “Sometimes, you have to confront, you have to confront your demons. Sometimes, you have to face the beast.”

So I said, “I’m going to get in, I’m going to look these guys in the eyes, I’m going to say, ‘Listen, fellows: get another patsy, OK? There’s Kevin Spacey, there’s Kevin Costner, there’s Kevin Kline. Find somebody else.” I go into the Green Room, and here they come, and I was completely and totally disarmed. They were nervous, they were smart, they were funny, they were cool, all these things I didn’t expect. I left that place, and I thought to myself, “Well, that’s it. It’s over. I’m cool. It’s not going to last. In three months, nobody is going to be talking about “The six degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

It just had this incredible hang time. People would start to come up to me on the subway and literally go, “Zero! Zero! Zero! Zero!” The Onion had a headline that said, “Kevin Bacon connected to Osama Bin Laden in six steps or less.” There were articles about politics, and sports, and all kinds of stuff: science, mathematics. A few years down the line, the planes fried flied into the World Trade Center, and I go to pick up my little girl, way too early, and I see the fear in her eyes. We go to war, and everywhere I look, man, it’s like turmoil, and sickness, and a family member is diagnosed with cancer, another friend dies of addiction. And I just feel completely overwhelmed, and I say to myself, “You have to do more, you have to figure out a way to do more, giving some money over here, voting over here, showing up at things, doing PSAs, whatever.”

I open up the refrigerator, and there’s Paul Newman; and he’s staring at me from a jar of tomato sauce. And I think to myself, “That’s amazing. I love Paul Newman, I love him as an actor, but I love what he did with his time, his time on this planet. He liked to make salad dressing, and he liked to make tomato sauce, and 300 million dollars later, it’s still this juggernaut for charity.” And I thought, “What do I – do I have any? I’m not Paul Newman, but do I have anything that is branded with me?” And somehow, the Footloose Foundation just didn’t feel right. And then I said, “Well, wait a second, wait a second – six degrees.”

So I ran to the computer, and I typed in ‘’  and it’s a real estate website. Then I went, “No, that’s not it, I need ‘'” I go, and it’s available; If you want it just call these guys. I was, “Wow, I don’t know how to do it. What do I have to do to get a website?” So I call my buddy Willie who was a little better at this, he goes in, access my broker, 3,500 dollars later, I own I’ve no idea what to do with it. I start talking to my friends and my family; I’m a complete neophyte in this world of philanthropy, I really don’t know what I’m doing.

I thought that I wanted to do something that showed the connectivity, I knew that I wanted to do some kind of good. It amazes me that people think of a do-gooder as an insult, that always blows my mind. I knew that I wanted to raise money, I knew that this couldn’t be my main job because I’m a very busy guy so I was talking to somebody at the charity thing that I was doing, and he said, “You should talk to this guy who knows another guy; you should check out this thing called ‘Network for Good.'” I go on to Network for Good, and I realize, much to my chagrin, that they are doing exactly what it was that I wanted to do. And of course, I was so naive to think that I was having some great, new idea.

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I thought I was going to be some kind of do-gooder, Internet star, or something like that. This is the digital age; and ideas are just bursting like fireworks on the 4th of July. But I figured that I would call this guy, Bill Strathmann from Network for Good and just reach out to him and see if he could help me. Much to my surprise, they were actually interested in partnering. He saw me more as an opportunity than as some kind of competition.

And I come from the dog-eat-dog world of show business, man, it’s like every man for himself, getting parts or movies, and being number one and all that stuff. But in philanthropy, it just seems to be a little bit more partnering, and of course, that’s the way it should be. So we started to shape this idea of what could be. We decided that we really wanted to make it celebrity-based.

And then I thought about uggs, those goofy boots. So actresses don’t like to wear their shoes from the trailer to the set. I love actresses – I’m married to one – but sometimes, they are a little delicate. They don’t want to get their toes wet or slip on the heels so the costumers give them these silly boots to wear. They walk from the trailer to the set, the paparazzi are there, – click, click, click!- they take the pictures, goes in the magazines, women all over the world start dressing like Eskimos.

So I thought, “Is there a way to apply that to charity? If people are going to buy something because a star uses it, what about donating to something that a star cares about? So we decided to become the celebrity face of Network for Good. Around that time, we were going to Sundance, and I figured that’s going to be the perfect place to try to sign up famous people for our site. We go out there, we bring some T-shirts, and some buttons, and we set up a booth. I walk up to all these celebrities; everyone is very, very happy.

Here is the thing: being famous is great. I mean, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. All day long, people are nice to me for absolutely no reason. But usually, people want something from you. So I wanted to not be the guy who was going to try to take something from these celebrities. Sure enough, you come up, “How are you doin’?”, hug-hug, kiss-kiss. “Listen, this is what I need from you: I need your picture, and I need to know what causes you support and I need you to sign this form.” And I can see that sometimes, it’s this subtle shift in people’s eyes because all of a sudden, I went from being a colleague to being the guy that wanted something. But that was cool; sometimes, they’d say, “Well, you have to talk to my assistant.” I was totally great with that.

We left Sundance, signed up a bunch of celebrities, and felt really, really good about what we had done. We created these badges, they are like floating websites. You could attach them to blogs, you could attach them to e-mails. And on those badges, there was a picture of the celebrity and the cause that they supported, and you could click on a “Donate,” and there was a ticker that kept a tally of all the money that was rolling in. I left Sundance, man, and I was like, “That’s it, I planted the seed. I’m just going to sit back and watch the dough roll in.” Not so fast.

What we found was that people want to smell like a famous person or wear a watch if the guy’s tough in the movie, and you want to wear that same watch, but when it comes to charity, it’s a much more personal thing. It’s more of a connection between family, and friends, and things that you care about, that have affected you deeply and personally. Animals are very, very important to people because you care about them.

So we put these badges up there, and there was some initial traffic but there wasn’t really that much rolling in. The tickers weren’t really turning, and I was embarrassed, and I felt, frankly, like a failure. Then we were on a conference call, and someone said, “Hey, how about if regular people can become celebrities for their own causes?” And I thought, “Well, that’s a cool idea. What if people can create their own badges and put them right up there next to someone that they admire, that is recognizable?” To kick this idea off, we offered six 10,000 dollar grants to the six people who could get the most number of donations. And this is important; not the most money donated to their causes, but the most number of people donating.

And the reason we did that was we felt that the connectivity and the exponential spread of the idea of giving was just as important as the dollars and cents. Well, the results of that were really stunning. A couple of examples – a woman is diagnosed with MS; she’s in a hospital, in a waiting room or something, sees us talking about in this challenge on television. She’s like a triathlete, like a really energetic person; that takes all that energy and all that fear and sadness that she had surrounding this illness and puts it into raising money for MS research.

Another woman has a son who is autistic; takes this challenge up, reaches out to so many people in her community – thousands and thousands of people – and not only raises money but spreads the idea from personal experiences of her experience with autism. Later on down the road, we got some corporate sponsors who helped us out, and we did subsequent challenges. All of those have been extremely successful. A couple of years ago, we went back to Sundance, we launched something called Good Cards. A good card is a gift card you give somebody for say, 10 dollars, 20 dollars, 50 dollars, whatever.

You take that card home after you received it, you think about it, and you decide what you want to do with that money and where you want to put it. It feels great two or three times over: I feel good giving it to you, you feel good using it. It’s a win-win situation. We are trying to reach out now to college students, we are looking for the next big idea. Believe me, if anybody has the next big idea, let me know.

We’re constantly, constantly trying to shift it and change it. When we started Six Degrees, it’s not that many years ago, it’s going so fast, nobody knew what a hashtag was. And Facebook was just for hooking up really. We are trying to stay ahead of the curve if we possibly can; I’ve learned so much, and I’m constantly learning, but I do know that I’m no genius when it comes to web-based ideas. I do know you can’t just plant the seed and walk away, you have to be willing to water it, to fertilize it; if need be, you have to go out and buy it a grow lamp.

And most importantly, if you take me out of the Six Degrees idea, it really is a beautiful concept because we really are all connected. The things that we do here, now, on our block affect people on the other side of the world, and they affect people on the other side of town. The Internet is the most powerful example of the connectivity of people; we created it. I believe we created it so that we could stay connected; and I think we have to keep thinking about ways that we can use it as a force for good. Thanks.