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.”

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