The idea behind the Kevin Bacon game is that everyone in Hollywood can be connected to the actor by six degrees or fewer. According an analysis of IMDB data though, Kevin Bacon is actually only the 444th most connected person in Hollywood.
Dennis Hopper is actually center of the Hollywood universe — the person who can be connected to any other person in Hollywood in the fewest number of steps on average — or at least he was on June 24, 2011. That was the last time Patrick Reynolds did the numbers.
Reynolds maintains the website Oracle of Bacon. It was started as a programming project by a couple of graduate students in the Computer Science department at the University of Virginia. Reynolds, who graduated from UVA in 1999, took over the website as a favor to a professor. The computer programmer now operates it out of his dinning room in Pensacola, Florida.
About once a month, Reynolds pulls new information from IMDB to update the site, which will tell you the shortest path between any actor and Kevin Bacon. Once every year or two, he updates the site with a list of the 1000 most connected actors and actresses.
According to the analysis, Hollywood’s most connected are older, white and overwhelmingly male. They are character actors, and have been members of ensemble cast; they play tough guys, villains and every-men. There are only a few men of color — Danny Trejo, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones, James Hong — and even fewer women (just Faye Dunaway and Karen Black) in the top 40.
“The most connected part of the movie universe are the people who have had very long careers, very prolific careers, with lots of other actors,” Reynolds said. “It’s the people who have done movies in several different countries, it’s the people whose careers span 50 years — and, in Hollywood, men more than women have those 50 year careers.”
Reynolds found similar trends true of baseball when he created Oracle of Baseball, a project that applies the same methodology to ballplayers instead of actors.
“The best connected people are the ones who not only have long careers, but who play on a bunch of different teams,” he said. “It’s the same with the movie world — if you’re just in one studio system making movies over and over again in Hollywood you’re working with the same costars, but if you travel to France to make a film you’re going to work with a lot of different costars.”
The basis for both oracles came from a game in the theoretical math world called Erdős number.
“Erdős was a mathematician, and a very proflicic one, a quirky one, who traveled the country sleeping on people’s couches and writing math research papers with them. He was sort of the Kevin Bacon of the theoretical math research world,” Reynolds said.
“Anybody who writes research papers in theoretical mathematics has an Erdős number — if they co-authored a research paper with Erdős it’s one, if they co-authored a paper with one of Erdős’ co-authors its two, and so on,” he explained.
“The neat concept is to combine the two, so there is this idea of the Erdős-Bacon number, which is a person’s Erdős plus their Bacon number. Most people don’t have both because most people are not theoretical mathematicians and actors, but there are a few people,” he said. “The best one that I know of is Natalie Portman who actually wrote a math research paper and of course is an actress.”
The top 1000, Reynolds acknowledged, is due for an update and when he completes it he said it’s possible that Dennis Hopper, who died in 2010, may lose the top spot. “He’ll gradually fall, because some of the other people in the top ten are still alive and producing.”
There’s hope for Kevin Bacon yet.