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As he prepares to launch season 3 of City on a Hill, Kevin Bacon is closing in on six decades spent on our screens, playing everything from heroes (Footloose, Tremors) to more complex men who live in shades of gray (A Few Good Men, Apollo 13, Mystic River) to outright villains (Animal House, X-Men: First Class).
He's such a consistent presence on screen that he is even the basis of a popular party game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, in which one tries to link an actor to another in six degrees or less via Bacon's presence in a project — it's such a thing that Bacon's charity is even named Six Degrees.
Francisco Roman/SHOWTIME; Everett Collection (2) Kevin Bacon in 'City on a Hill,' 'Apollo 11,' and 'Footloose'
Bacon first became aware of the game via Howard Stern's radio show, but he remains surprised by how much it spread and stuck before social media existed.
"It's weird because we have things go viral now, but back then, there was no social media," he says. "Six Degrees spread virally only through word of mouth, and there was nothing to hold on to. It was more of just a concept."
With over 100 acting credits (and a few directing), it's not hard to see why Bacon is an ideal fit for this game. But he walked us through some of his most memorable roles and the wild adventures he's had on set over the years for this Role Call.
<em>Animal House</em> (1978)
Bacon made his screen debut in this iconic National Lampoon title about frat boy antics. He features as Chip Diller, a smarmy ROTC bootlicker under Nedermeyer's (Mark Metcalf) tutelage. He was so green that he tried to tell production he couldn't fly out a week earlier than planned because he had a date. Until he was promptly informed that wasn't how things in the movie business worked. "It was the first time I'd ever been in first class in my life, and I couldn't believe that the alcohol was free, so I just kept drinking on this plane and trying to look like a big shot reading my script," he remembers. Though he didn't share much screen time with star John Belushi, who was flying back and forth between the set in Oregon and Saturday Night Live in New York, he remembers him as an incredibly generous guy. "At one point, he had a party for everybody," says Bacon. "And he had flown out from New York a whole bunch of smoked salmon. I liked smoked salmon, but I would never get it because it was way out my price range. And this was just piles of it, and there was champagne and orange juice [for mimosas], which I'd never heard of before."
A flop at the time of release, Diner has since become a beloved classic, in part for its influence as an early work from actors including Bacon, Tim Daly, Paul Reiser, and more. Bacon's Fenwick is a smart-aleck prankster, who hides his inner pain behind his antics. Those high jinks come to a head when Fenwick gets so drunk that he strips to his underwear and takes the place of the baby Jesus in a Nativity scene, using the figures in the creche to fight off his friends who are trying to help him. Bacon remembers the scene as "really, really cold." Adding: "I was cold, but I was loving every second of the fight. My hands were so cold that when I punched that wise man, it hurt a lot. But those are the moments when you feel most connected to the work. I could just [let loose] and really be inside Fenwick."
When Bacon signed on to this now iconic musical, he had no idea what he was getting into. "I would go [to Studio 54] and just dance into the wee hours of the morning by myself," he says. "So I was like, 'You don't really need a choreographer. I can dance. Just put some cool music on, turn the cameras on, and I'll jump around." Of course, it turned out to be far more complicated. While shooting the warehouse number, Bacon worked for days perfecting his moves, but he was still assisted by a gymnastics double, a dance double (to execute a flip he couldn't do), a stunt double, and his stand-in — that's five guys in the same costume. "I had a little bit of an inferiority complex," he admits. "It was a counterpoint to what I really thought acting was, so I started to feel like, 'Jesus, why do you need me?'"
<em>Lemon Sky</em> (1988)
Bacon met his wife Kyra Sedgwick while making this stage-to-screen adaptation for PBS' American Playhouse. Sedgwick actually saw Bacon in an off-Broadway play when she was only 12, but this was their first real connection. The Lanford Wilson play originally starred Jeff Daniels and Cynthia Nixon on stage. "Jeff didn't want to do it and neither did Cynthia," explains Bacon. "So, basically we have them to thank for our relationship."
<em>She's Having a Baby</em> (1988)
This John Hughes movie was not one of the writer/director's major successes, but it was his most introspective, reflecting on adulthood, growing up, and the pressures to adhere to a certain way of life. Bacon's Jake Briggs was, in essence, a fictionalized version of Hughes. "I spent a ton of time with John and his family since I was basically playing John," explains Bacon. "I was single and didn't have kids, so I had that time to just [learn] by osmosis being around him. And the wardrobe was pretty much right out of his closet." The movie debuted at a time when Hughes was at a career high (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Planes, Trains & Automobiles had all debut in the four years prior), and Bacon speculates the film's critical drubbing came as a desire to bring Hughes down a peg. "It was the most personal, heartfelt movie that John ever made," he says. "It was not embraced by critics, and it broke his heart."
Horror-comedy Tremors was a box office bomb when it premiered, but home video propelled it to cult classic status (and spawned many sequels). Bacon was not all that enthused about signing on to it. "I had begrudgingly done it," he admits. "I was broke, I had a kid on the way, and my mom had gotten sick, and I felt like I didn't have a choice — I was like, 'Jesus, this is a movie about underground monsters, how far I've fallen.'" However, once production started, Bacon describes it as a "magical time," working with Fred Ward and welcoming his first child. Plus, puppets! "The super cool thing about Tremors is that Tremors is all practical effects," he says. "It was all guys in puppets or people with things on their hands, and wires being pulled. It was ingenious. Acting with a puppet requires some acting, but we're professional pretenders."
<em>A Few Good Men</em> (1992)
Bacon started his career on the stage, making him the perfect fit for this adaptation of then-newcomer Aaron Sorkin's play. While many actors cite the difficulty of Sorkin's long scenes and rapid-paced dialogue, Bacon says he simply approached it like a stage play. But he was staggered by Jack Nicholson's commitment to his craft and his cast while filming the iconic "You can't handle the truth" scene. "Jack did it over and over and over again," Bacon marvels. "And each time was better than the next. Even when his coverage was done and we were turning around, he did it again for Tom [Cruise], he did it again for me, for Kevin Pollak with the jury. It was a lesson in professionalism."
<em>Apollo 13</em> (1995)
Despite Bacon's role as odd-man-out astronaut Jack Swigert, he forged a deep bond with co-stars Bill Paxton and Tom Hanks. It's hard not to when you're spending days going through astronaut training and experiencing some of the actual conditions of space flight. "We shot on this thing [we dubbed] the 'Vomit Comet,' where we went up over the Gulf of Mexico and we'd dive and climb over and over to simulate weightlessness," he explains. "I was smart and took the drugs NASA handed us every day. One day, both Tom and Bill went cowboy and decided, 'We've been up there so many times that we don't really need them.' I will say they weren't puking, but they were not looking good."
Bacon's only animated character on his résumé is heroic husky Balto, but it came to him in a roundabout way. "I don't think I've really experienced what voicing an animated character is," he says. "Usually, you record the dialogue and then they animate around you. In the case of Balto, they voiced it with another actor, and they didn't like the voice. So, the movie was done, and I was going in and re-voicing what this other actor had done. It was very hard. I didn't like it. They would play his dialogue in the way that he had said it in my head right before I'd say my line." But that didn't stop him from recently stopping to snag a picture of the Balto statue in Central Park while happening past it on a walk home.
<em>Mystic River</em> (2003)
Playing three childhood best friends, Bacon, Sean Penn, and Tim Robbins had to believably sell the complex bond of their characters in this dark drama from director Clint Eastwood. But Eastwood is notorious for his fast-paced shooting style and his trust in actors, meaning he doesn't rehearse at all. "We realized it was going to be important for us to do our own rehearsal," he says of the acting trio. "So, we would get together in somebody's hotel room, read the script and amongst ourselves play the scenes that were going to happen the next day. Eventually, the production got wind of it and got us a room at the hotel that we could use." From the material to the cast to Eastwood, Bacon says it was one of the most rewarding experiences of his career. "All of us were like, 'Wow, can we just take this group and move it to another movie?' We were all really sad to see it end."
<em>X-Men: First Class</em> (2011)
It seems only a matter of time before every great living actor finds their way into a superhero film, and this period piece was Bacon's. He plays big bad Sebastian Shaw, an energy-absorbing mutant who killed Magneto's (Michael Fassbender) mother while they were imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Bacon signed on to this project because of his admiration for director Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass. "When a superhero movie comes along, I'm too old to wear the tights, so what's left is either the bad guy or the head of the army or something," Bacon says. "I thought the character was interesting — the billionaire power broker concept. And when you get a chance to play a part with Marvel, they come with reams and reams of every single mention that he's ever had in every single comic, so you can dig into all kinds of research."
<em>I Love Dick</em> (2016-17)
Bacon had only just dipped his toe into television when this Joey Soloway series came his way. "In an ever dwindling world of independent film, I felt like we could make an independent series that was really out there and experimental," he says of the Amazon Prime Video series' appeal. That approach resulted in some truly wild days on set. "They were doing this scene with Griffin Dunne and Kathryn Hahn making love, and they said, 'We also want to do a version where in her mind's eye, Dick is actually sitting in the same room,'" Bacon recounts. "'So, we're going to do it a few times without you and then we're going to come in and put you in a chair.' So, there's a bed in front of me and all of a sudden, in my periphery, these two naked people just come dancing, running, jumping, completely naked out of the hallway and jump on the bed. I was like, 'What is this crazy gig I have?'"
<em>City on a Hill</em> (2019-present)
Continuing his stint on television, Bacon was immediately enamored with the character of Jackie Rohr when the pilot script came his way. "I read that guy and I just got him," he says. "I didn't have to work on him or discover him, I saw him. I saw what he was going to look like, his wardrobe, hair. I could hear his voice and see how his body would move through space." Season 3 finds Jackie in a new phase of his life, having left the FBI and thrown his badge into the river. Now, he's heading up private security for a wealthy family, but Bacon promises the new gig isn't as cushy as Jackie expects. "He's faced with a pretty serious moral dilemma because there's some really bad s--- going down in that house," he says. "It's like, 'Do I keep living the good life and driving a nice car, or do I do the right thing?'"