Brandon Griggs, AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) — Almost two decades ago, a parlor game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” became an unlikely grass-roots phenomenon among movie buffs and foretold today’s social web of online connections.
Maybe the only one who not amused by the game was Kevin Bacon himself.
“I was horrified by it. I thought it was a giant joke at my expense,” said the prolific actor Saturday during a talk at the South by Southwest Interactive festival here. “I appreciate it now. But I was very resistant to it (at first).”
The game, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, requires players to link celebrities to Bacon, in as few steps as possible, via the movies they have in common. The more odd or random the celebrity, the better. For example, O.J. Simpson was in “The Naked Gun 33 1/3” with Olympia Dukakis, who was in “Picture Perfect” with Kevin Bacon.
Inspired by “six degrees of separation,” the theory that nobody is more than six relationships away from any other person in the world, the game was dreamed up in 1994 by Brian Turtle and two classmates at Albright College in Philadelphia. They were watching “Footloose” on TV when it was followed by another Kevin Bacon movie, and then another.
“It was just one of those light-bulb moments,” said Turtle, who joined Bacon onstage at SXSW. “It was like, ‘This guy is everywhere! He’s the center of the entertainment universe.’ ”
After it spread among their friends, Turtle and his co-creators, Craig Fass and Mike Ginelli, managed to get booked on Jon Stewart’s then-MTV show to explain the game.
Meanwhile, Bacon was becoming aware of it, too.
“I started to kind of hear about it in strange ways,” said the actor, still boyish at 55. “People would come up to me and touch me and say, ‘I’m one degree!’ I didn’t really know what was going on.”
Bacon thought the game would be a fad. But it endured, and he eventually embraced it.
“I don’t think it’s a great testament to my ability (as an actor),” he said. “My movies just happen to be on a lot.”
In 2007 Bacon launched SixDegrees.org, a charitable organization that connects celebrities with good causes for fundraising purposes.
The ‘Six Degrees’ game has also inspired a website, The Oracle of Bacon, which lets people type in any actor’s name to see how they closely they link with the “Footloose” actor. The site assigns each celeb a ‘Bacon number’ to show the number of degrees of separation between the two.
Google now lets users type “Bacon number” in the search field, followed by an actor’s name, to produce the same result.
It’s rare to find a veteran actor who is not linked to Bacon in some way, and rarer still to find a Bacon number of 4 or higher. It helps that Bacon has appeared in more than 65 movies, including many with large ensemble casts such as “Diner,” “Flatliners,” “JFK,” “A Few Good Men,” “Sleepers,” “Mystic River” and “X-Men: First Class.”
Bacon, currently filming the second season of his Fox drama “The Following,” admitted Saturday that he occasionally needs to use The Oracle of Bacon himself.
“Whether it’s my age or my misspent youth, sometimes I forget whether I’ve worked with somebody or not,” he said. “I’ll look at the call sheet, check the name, and then I’ll check their Bacon number. That way I can go on the set and say, ‘Good to see you,’ or ‘Good to see you again.'”
Several other celebrities with tenuous ties to Bacon joined him onstage Saturday, including actress Felicia Day, who noted that “‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ is really the idea of social media before there was social media.”
The talk closed with fellow panelist Lance Ulanoff, editor of tech site Mashable, shooting a Vine video of Bacon with the audience waving in the background. That way, Bacon said, everyone in attendance in Austin is now just one degree of separation away from him.