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‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ hits the Super Bowl

It was the kind of conversation that’s been had millions of times by millions of people.

It wasn’t investigating deep philosophical questions. It wasn’t a debate on the hot-button political arguments of the moment.

It was simply a group of college students in their early 20s batting about something that popped into their slightly inebriated brains. It was the type of chat that typically just comes and goes, forgotten in a day or two.

But that’s not what happened this time.

Instead, that conversation in a town house near Albright College gave birth to a cultural touchstone. It created something that, nearly three decades later, would still be relevant.

It was the first ever game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

Actor Kevin Bacon, shown in July, is at the center of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” a game created by three Albright College students in January 1994. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

A play on the idiom six degrees of separation, the game posits that any actor can be connected to Kevin Bacon in six steps or less. It challenges players to make those connections with the actor who grew up in Philadelphia and whose brother lives in Phoenixville.

Since its creation in 1994, it has been featured on TV and radio and has resulted in a book and a board game. It’s even been a category on “Jeopardy.”

And during Super Bowl LVII on Sunday, it will be the subject of one of the ultra-expensive and hotly anticipated commercials shown between the touchdowns, first downs, sacks and fumbles of the big game.

“It’s amazing that something so minimal has had such a legacy and has lasted so long,” said Brian Turtle, one of the creators of the game. “It feels good, it’s really neat.”

Accidental genius

Turtle tells the story with ease, recounting the events of that day in January 1994 with the clarity of someone who has done it many, many times before.

Turtle was hunkered down in his off-campus residence with his friends Mike Ginelli and Craig Fass. There was a blizzard going on, so the guys were stuck indoors watching a bit of television.

“What else are you going to do?” Turtle said with a laugh. “It was before the internet.”

“Footloose” was on the screen, the classic 1984 flick that catapulted Bacon into true stardom. After that, “Quicksilver,” another Bacon movie, was set to come on.

And during a commercial break, the guys saw an advertisement for “The Air Up There,” Bacon’s newest cinematic endeavor.

“We were like, ‘Wow, Kevin Bacon is everywhere. He must have worked with everyone,’” Turtle recalled.

Brian Turtle at Albright College in April 2015 talking about the creation of the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” (READING EAGLE)

The quip led to a challenge. The guys started naming actors, starting first with John Lithgow.

That one was obvious, as Lithgow had portrayed the dance-hating pastor in “Footloose,” a fact that the few alcoholic drinks they had consumed made them temporarily forget. Next up was Robert De Niro, which was a bit more tricky.

Bacon and De Niro hadn’t worked together at that point — they would two years later in “Sleepers” — but connecting the dots between them wasn’t too hard.

De Niro starred in “The Untouchables” with Kevin Costner, and Costner worked with Bacon in “JFK.”

“That was the match that burnt the forest down,” Turtle said. “From that point on, for the next four hours, we just kept throwing names at each other. When we woke up the next morning we quizzed each other some more.

“It just never went away, we just kept connecting people to each other.”

Just like that, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” was born.

A cultural phenomenon

Eventually, the guys shared their new creation on a local radio station.

Word of it spread from there, catching the attention of “The Jon Stewart Show” on MTV. After appearing there, they were invited to Howard Stern’s radio show.

With that kind of exposure, the game quickly caught fire.

“It all kind of fell into place,” Turtle said.

There was a “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” book. There was a “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” board game. There were references on television shows and movies.

And, of course, there were millions of people playing it with their friends.

“It’s amazing that is has become such a part of the cultural lexicon,” said Turtle, who now lives in New Jersey and works in the toy industry.

From early on, Turtle said, Bacon has been supportive of the game. That, he said, likely helped it stick around.

“People with thinner skin would have thought they’re being made fun of,” said Turtle, who has met Bacon several times. “But Kevin was really cool about it. He even wrote the foreword to the book that came out in 1996.”

“Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” has been quite a ride for Turtle, Ginelli and Fass, never seeming to quite run out of steam.

“It pops up so randomly, and it’s always so amazing,” Turtle said. “It was a ‘Jeopardy’ category one time, it will pop up on Sports Center on ESPN.”

The next appearance will happen on Super Bowl Sunday. Budweiser will air a “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” commercial featuring the actor during what is typically the most-watched television event of the year.

So if anyone somehow didn’t know the game before, they likely will soon.

“We’ve carved our names in pop culture,” Turtle said.

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