originally published April 27, 2014
Those who know me (or who have read enough of my articles to have observed when my jokes and references get tired and therefore repeated) know that I love to write about bacon. Today I’m offering a new take on the topic; in fact, I’m refocussing my literary lens on a wholly different variety of bacon.
By now I’m sure everyone has heard of the game/meme/phenomenon that is Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. If you’ve somehow escaped this snippet of pop culture, or if you only ever visit the internet to read this site and play solitaire (hi mom!), this is a game in which you try to match any actor or actress to Kevin Bacon through their film and television appearances, using as few steps as possible. For example, Brian Dennehy was in Annie Oakley with Jamie Lee Curtis, who starred with Bacon in 8. Two degrees.
Even if you dip into the more obscure actors it’s hard to find a connection that requires more than three steps. I looked up Loni Nest, who had a small uncredited role as “child in window” in the 1925 silent German horror classic Nosferatu, and still it was only three paces away from Bacon (via Lil Dagover in Harakiri, who appeared with Max Schell in The Pedestrian, who appeared with Bacon in Telling Lies In America). It’s a little weird, really.
The game is based on the small world theory, that everyone is at most six steps away from everyone else via acquaintances. Its origins lie in a January, 1994 interview Bacon gave to Premiere magazine whilst hyping his new flick, The River Wild. He jokingly commented that he had worked with everyone in Hollywood, or at least with someone who had worked with them. Three months later the newsgroup rec.arts.movies began a lengthy discussion about Kevin Bacon as the ‘Center of the Universe’.
This was around the time when three students at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania (Craig Fass, Brian Turtle and Mike Ginelli – they deserve the accolades for this) began piecing the connections together as a party trick. They didn’t have IMDb at their disposal so they went off memory and were astounded at the results. Eventually the game became so popular they were appearing on The Jon Stewart Show and on Howard Stern’s radio show to discuss it. They even landed a book deal and a board game out of the schtick.
Kevin Bacon was a little put off by the game at first. Then he must have realized that the game merely demonstrated his ubiquitous connection to modern cinema. It’s a compliment, and he eventually embraced it. For more than a decade now, Bacon has made tongue-in-cheek references to the phenomenon, even starting a hugely successful charity called SixDegrees.org. This parlor-trick-turned-spectacle positions Bacon at the center of the Hollywood universe – how could he not be thrilled?
The trick is to find an actor’s Bacon Number. Bacon himself has a Bacon Number of zero, and any actor who has been in a film with Bacon has a Bacon Number of 1. Finding anyone with a higher number than three is difficult, though the record (according to the Oracle of Bacon website, founded by University of Virginia student Brett Tjaden) is eleven. They won’t tell who that disconnected soul is – that would take the fun out of the game, I suppose – but it has to be someone tremendously obscure. Jesus, even President William McKinley only scores a 4.
If you want to play without stretching your memory or drawing huge charts on your wall, just head to Google and punch in “bacon number” followed by the name of any celebrity. Because Google is awesome.
So does this mean that Kevin Bacon is truly the nexus of the Hollywood universe? Not so, according to the Oracle of Bacon. Taking into account the actors who have the lowest average connection with everyone else in the IMDb roster of actors, there are 369 people with a better score. Here’s where the math steps in.
The average Bacon number is roughly 2.994. Not bad. Sean Connery has been in movies with fewer total actors than Bacon, but still he has an average connection number (or Connery Number, I suppose) of 2.937, positioning him closer to the center of the Hollywood universe. According to the Oracle – and I should point out this may have gone out of date in the year or so since their list was last tallied – actors in the top 50 include Jeff Goldblum, Elliott Gould and Samuel L. Jackson. The top five are Martin Sheen, David Carradine, Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper, and with an average connection score of only 2.8486, Harvey Keitel. The center of the universe.
Before the Bacon Number became a thing, math geeks were already tickling their fancies by positing the notion of an Erdös Number. This game connects people through authorship of research papers with famous mathematician Paul Erdös, who authored over 1500 papers in his lifetime, most of them co-written. The man worked directly with 511 collaborators, and of all working mathematicians around the turn of the century (just a few years after Erdös had died), the average Erdös Number was 4.65. It’s not just math-types either; the links can be found drifting into physics, linguistics and a number of other fields.
Paul Morphy, who was considered to be the greatest chess master of the 19th century, only played games with about 100 people, but folks still track players’ Morphy Numbers, based on degrees of connection to Morphy through playing games. There are likely millions of players with a Morphy Number of 5, but as of September, 2010, there were only 17 living people with a Morphy Number of 3. Why do people care? Well, why do people care about Bacon Numbers?
If you want to get both nitty and gritty, there’s always the Erdös-Bacon Number, which combines both one’s connection to Kevin Bacon through film and one’s connection to Paul Erdös through academic paper authorship. Don’t laugh, this exists.
Astronomer Carl Sagan has an Erdös-Bacon Number of 6. His academic paper authorship connects him with Paul Erdös in four steps, and his appearance with John Lithgow (who was in Footloose) in Johnny Carson: King Of Late Night gives him a Bacon Number of only 2. Danica McKellar (pictured above, my generation’s childhood crush from The Wonder Years) wrote an important mathematics paper at UCLA, giving her an Erdös-Bacon Number of 6 as well. Oscar-winner Colin Firth actually starred with Bacon in Where The Truth Lies, but he also penned a neuroscience paper with a man who has an Erdös Number of 5, giving Firth an Erdös-Bacon Number of 7. Natalie Portman’s number is also 7, but she could bump that up to a 6 if she would appear in a film with Kevin Bacon directly.
If you really want to stretch the rules (and why wouldn’t you?), Hank Aaron has an Erdös-Bacon Number of only 3. He appeared in Summer Catch with actress Susan Gardner, who appeared in In The Cut with Bacon, and he also autographed the same baseball as Paul Erdös once.
Too far? Maybe. Hungry for actual bacon? Always. I never want to be more than two degrees from a side of delicious bacon.