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How Kevin Bacon Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon

Twenty years after three college students created the game, the well-connected actor reflects on how Six Degrees has had a personal and professional impact on his life.

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If Hollywood influence is measured by the people you know, then it stands to reason Kevin Bacon is the most powerful man in town since Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, a game based on the “six degrees of separation” concept, asserts that the Footloose star can be connected to any celebrity in six steps or less.

(The game’s thesis is bolstered by the fact that President Barack Obama has a Bacon Number of 2: Obama and Tom Hanks appeared in The Road We’ve Traveled; Hanks and Bacon appeared in Apollo 13).

While movie fans have derived countless hours of joy from the game, that initially wasn’t the case for Bacon. “It was so annoying,” he admitted to BuzzFeed. “I thought it was a joke at my expense. I thought somebody was trying to pick the biggest loser they could find and joke about the fact I could be connected to Laurence Olivier in two steps. When you fight so hard and put your sweat and blood into trying to have your work speak for itself, I found it belittling. I mean, do you want to be the guy with a game named after you or be the one with 18 Oscar nominations?”

But after being introduced to the game’s creators — Craig Fass, Brian Turtle, and Mike Ginelli, who came up with the concept at Albright College in 1994 — on The Jon Stewart Show in 1995, Bacon learned that he was not the butt of some global joke.

“I nearly canceled the appearance because I thought it was going to be embarrassing,” the actor said with a laugh. “But when I met them, I realized they weren’t making fun of me; they actually liked my movies.” Soon thereafter, Bacon embraced the game, operating under the assumption it would, in his own words, “go the way of pogo sticks and pet rocks.” “But it never went away, and now it’s been 20 years,” he said.

While Bacon hasn’t bought into the hypothesis that he’s the world’s most popular actor — “It easily could have been Six Degrees of Kevin Spacey” — over the last two decades, he’s come to accept the role Six Degrees plays in his life and his career.

In 2007, Bacon launched SixDegrees.org, an organization that utilizes six degrees of separation to grow charitable social networks. “If you take me out of it, I find six degrees to be a beautiful concept that we should try to live by,” he said. “It’s about compassion and responsibility for everyone on the planet.”

Bacon’s connections are forever expanding. Here he is (front, fifth from right) at rehearsals for 8: A Play about the Fight for Marriage Equality in March 2012 with a whole lot of celebrities: (Top row L-R) Jansen Panettiere, Bridger Zadina, Jane Lynch, Vanessa Garcia, James Pickens Jr., Yeardley Smith, writer Dustin Lance Black, director Rob Reiner, and actor Rory O’Malley, and (Bottom row L-R) Actors Cleve Jones, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Chris Colfer, Christine Lahti, Jamie Lee Curtis, Martin Sheen, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Bomer, Matthew Morrison, Campbell Brown, and George Takei. Getty Images

On Saturday, March 8, Bacon will speak at the SXSW panel Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: A Social Phenomenon Turns 20, which will be moderated by Six Degrees creator Brian Turtle. “When you stop and realize it’s been 20 years … that’s crazy,” Bacon said.

The panel is designed to focus on the game’s ability to gain significant and enduring traction in a pre-social media world. Admittedly a late adopter, Bacon has recently come to embrace Twitter — though he drew the line at Facebook (“I heard someone describe it as a way for people you grew up with to find you. That’s my worst fucking nightmare. Who would want that?”) — as a form of communication with his fans.

But he doesn’t buy into the assertion that social media is the only promotional tool an entertainer needs today. “There is this idea that your social media platform is the secret to success, but no one has quite proven that to be true if you ask me,” Bacon said. “Somebody with a billion followers can tweet, ‘See my movie,’ and it can still tank. Followers don’t always translate into success because I think people are too savvy. When something takes off, it’s because people are connecting to it; not because someone with a lot of followers says to care about it.”

Though he’s come around to Twitter and to Six Degrees over the years, Bacon said he still doesn’t engage in the latter. “But I will tell you a secret: Honestly, I’ve truly forgotten who I have and haven’t worked with at this point,” he said with a laugh. “So I will go and check someone’s Bacon Number if they’re coming to work [on his Fox drama The Following] so I don’t say, ‘Hi, nice to meet you,’ and their response is, ‘Uh, we worked together in 1995.’ So, while I don’t play the game, I do use it from time to time.”

Watch an exclusive SXSW promo for Bacon’s panel.

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