The Kevin Bacon numbers system, better known as “the six degrees of Kevin Bacon” is a cultural phenomenon that describes how close one’s working relationship is with Hollywood actor, Kevin Bacon.
The higher the number, the further away the relationship is while still being linked.
Technically, multiple people can share the highest “Bacon number.” However, the best-known and most frequently cited example is William Rufus Shafter with a Bacon number of 10.
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Kevin Bacon is an American actor known for his prolific film and TV career. Born in 1958, he has over 100 acting credits to his name.
In a 1994 interview with Premiere Magazine, Bacon famously said that he “had worked with everybody in Hollywood or someone who’s worked with them,” which eventually served as the inspiration for the six degrees of Kevin Bacon game.
Kevin Bacon numbers are a simple parlor game concept that revolves around a theory that most (if not all) people working in Hollywood are within six degrees of separation of Kevin Bacon.
Someone with a Bacon number of 3 would have three degrees of separation from the actor.
People play the “Kevin Bacon numbers game” or “The six degrees of Kevin Bacon” with each other by trying to verbally trace the degrees without looking them up.
Though most actors have a Bacon number of 6 or lower, the concept has expanded to include higher numbers as more connections have been uncovered over the years.
Each number refers to a degree of separation. So, someone who has a Bacon number of 1 appeared with the actor in a project directly.
Meanwhile, someone who has a Bacon number of 2 would have appeared in a movie alongside someone with a Bacon number of 1, and so on.
Kevin Bacon numbers often transcend multiple time periods and cinematic genres. One example of this is with actress, Shirley Temple, who is three degrees separated from Kevin Bacon (a Bacon number of 3).
Shirley Temple appeared alongside actor Carroll Baker in Hollywood Uncensored (1987), Carol Baker appeared with Eli Wallach in Baby Doll (1956), and Eli Wallach starred with Kevin Bacon in Mystic River (2003).
William Rufus Shafter, the man with the highest widely known Bacon number, was not an actor but a military officer who served the Union in the American Civil War.
He lived from 1835 to 1906.
Shafter’s Bacon number and eventual Hollywood connection is the result of his appearance in the late 1800s black-and-white silent film, Surrender of General Toral.
He appeared as himself.
William Rufus Shafter’s Bacon number is calculated by starting with a project he worked on. The relationship to Kevin Bacon is then traced through different collaborators and projects throughout time, as follows:
1 degree- William Rufus Shafter appeared in Surrender of General Toral (1898) with Joseph Wheeler.
2 degrees- Joseph Wheeler appeared in General Wheeler and Secretary of War Alger at Camp Wikoff (1898), with Russell Alexander Alger.
3 degrees- Russell Alexander Alger appeared in President McKinley’s Inspection of Camp Wikoff (1898) with William McKinley.
4 degrees- William McKinley was in President McKinley and Escort Going to the Capitol (1901) with Nelson Miles.
5 degrees- Nelson Miles was in The Indian Wars (1914) with William F. Cody.
6 degrees- William F. Cody was in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East (1910) with Major Gordon W. ‘Pawnee Bill’ Lillie.
7 degrees- Major Gordon W. ‘Pawnee Bill’ Lillie was in In the Days of the Thundering Herd (1914) with Wheeler Oakman.
8 degrees- Wheeler Oakman appeared in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) with Jerry Gardner.
9 degrees- Jerry Gardner was in Natural Born Killers (1994) with Pruitt Taylor Vince.
10 degrees- Pruitt Taylor Vince appeared in 24 Hours (2002) with Kevin Bacon.
In 1994, the same year as Bacon’s Premiere Magazine interview where he stated he had worked with just about everybody in Hollywood, a group of Albright College students thought up the game concept after watching two Kevin Bacon movies back-to-back (Footloose and The Air Up There).
Led by Brian Turtle, the students went on to appear on TV with Jon Stewart and on the radio with Howard Stern to explain the game and claim that “Kevin Bacon was the center of the entertainment universe.”
Format-wise, the six degrees of Kevin Bacon is largely based on the six-degrees-of-separation theory that was first introduced in the “small-world experiment” of the 1960s.
Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted this experiment to research how closely people around the planet are connected.
The patterns he used form the foundation of the Bacon numbers game.
For those who don’t want to do manual research and calculation, Google introduced its “Kevin Bacon number calculator” in 2012.
This is an algorithm that allows users to enter a name into the Google search engine with the words, “Bacon number,” and the numerical degree of separation will be instantly revealed.
Of course, not every person working in the film industry today has a Bacon number. Those who are early in their careers or who have stuck to mostly smaller, independent projects are less likely to have a degree of connection.
There are thousands of examples of Kevin Bacon numbers, though the average in Hollywood ranges between 2 and 3. Some more famous ones include:
- Helen Mirren – 2 degrees
- Meryl Streep – 1 degree
- George Clooney – 2 degrees
- Liam Neeson – 2 degrees
- Marilyn Monroe – 2 degrees
- Dorothy Dandridge – 2 degrees
- Al Pacino – 2 degrees
- Will Smith – 2 degrees
- Paul Newman – 2 degrees
- Robert Redford – 2 degrees
- Faye Dunaway – 2 degrees
- Leonardo DiCaprio – 2 degrees
- Halle Berry – 2 degrees
Some prolific Hollywood actors still have high Bacon numbers. One example is actress Octavia Spencer, who tops the original “six degrees” concept with a number of 6.
The Bacon number system is largely a Western world phenomenon centered in Hollywood and the British film industry.
However, there have been connections established in other world film industries, like Bollywood.
For example, Bollywood actor Kabir Bedi has a Bacon score of 2, similar to many Hollywood actors.
This is because he appeared with actor Aidan Quinn in Forbidden Territory (1997), and Quinn went on to star alongside Kevin Bacon in 2004’s Cavedweller.
The lowest Kevin Bacon number belongs to Kevin Bacon himself. This number is 0 and refers to the starting point of the ranking system, which is also the closest possible “degree” of relation to Kevin Bacon.
Since Kevin Bacon is himself, there is nobody who could possibly have a closer degree or lower number.
Kevin Bacon numbers have been mentioned numerous times by characters in TV shows and movies, including Scooby Doo, Mad About You, Scream 2, and Will & Grace.
In 2009, Bacon himself narrated a National Geographic Channel show inspired by the concept, called The Family Tree.
He has also appeared as himself in at least three commercials referencing it.
Weird Al Yankovic makes reference to the six degrees of Kevin Bacon in his song, “Lame Claim to Fame.”
Technically, any celebrity or any person has their own degree system. Some famous ones include the “six degrees of Matt Damon,” the “six degrees of Danny Trejo” and other prolific actors.
In 2014, Road & Track magazine did a “six degrees of movie cars,” connecting famous Hollywood actors to certain vehicles.