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At SXSW, thousands get a Kevin Bacon number of one

Twenty years later, the game that shows how many connections actors have to Kevin Bacon is still strong. Bacon showed up at SXSW, perplexed as to why.

Actor Kevin Bacon, speaking at SXSW Saturday. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

I now have a Kevin Bacon number of one.

Technically, that's not true. But given that I was in the audience today, along with at least a thousand other people at South by Southwest (SXSW), listening to the famous actor talking about the now 20-year-old Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, I'm going to stake a claim to a score of one. With an asterisk.

In 1994, after watching a couple Kevin Bacon movies, Brian Turtle, along with friends Mike Ginelli and Craig Fass, decided to figure out how many connections it would take to get from actors like Robert De Niro to Bacon. Before long, their little game went viral, and countless people knew what a Bacon Number was: The number of connections between a specific actor and Bacon. For De Niro, it's one (they were both in "Sleepers"); For Harrison Ford, it's two; and for Sally Field, it's two.

That's why my number deserves an asterisk, of course: I'm not a performer, and I've never been in a film or TV show at all, let alone with anyone who's acted with Bacon. But hundreds of others are, given that bacon has been in 78 different movies and TV shows.

In the early days of the game, Bacon recalled, he knew nothing about it. But he said he knew something was up when random strangers kept running up to him, touching him, and yelling out, "'I'm one degree, I'm one degree.'"

When he figured out what was going on, Bacon said, he was none too pleased. "My first reaction to the game, because I took myself so seriously, as an actor, as a performer," Bacon said, "was that I was horrified by it. I thought it was a giant joke at my expense: 'Can you believe that this a-hole can be connected to Lawrence Olivier in six steps or less?'"

It turns out, of course, that Olivier's Bacon number is just three.

Back to Kevin Bacon, though, one day, he was on Jon Stewart's TV show and got a chance to meet the game's creators, and he quickly realized they were fans, not detractors. And his view of things changed overnight. Even then, though, he expected the game would peter out quickly, like so many social phenomena. Yet, it kept on going. "Eventually I've learned to embrace it," Bacon said, adding that, I truly believe that there's a lot of other people more connected to more people [than I am]. It just happened to be me, my movies just happened to be on."

One might ask why SXSW decided to have a panel about the Kevin Bacon game. Perhaps actress and Internet personality Felicia Day put it best: "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon was social media before there was social media," Day said onstage. "The beautiful thing about connections like that is that each person in the chain is equally important."

Another panelist, Mashable editor-at-large Lance Ulanoff agreed. Having been an early participant in the game, he recalled playing when there was barely a World Wide Web, and when IMDB was first getting started. The game "revealed something about our connected nature," Ulanoff said. "Fast forward to now, when we're all on Facebook, we're all on Twitter, and all on Linked In, it's getting to be a physical manifestation of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."

For his part, Bacon has taken the spirit of the game and turned it into something that actually helps people -- not just entertains them. His charity has raised more than $5 million connecting people.

To close out the SXSW talk, Turtle invited audience members to come up to a microphone and tell everyone their personal Bacon number. The first up, a man, said, "I'm as close to zero as you can possibly be. My name is Kevin Bacon, and I'm a musician."

The crowd erupted in laughter.

Bacon, the actor, admitted that Bacon the musician was a plant, and that he'd asked his namesake to come and introduce himself to the SXSW crowd. He also recalled how he'd first come to realize there was someone else out there with his name. "I knew his work because people would come up to me and say i liked you in Footloose," Bacon said, "but I really liked the music you produced a lot better."