Journey, Man

Kevin Bacon hasn't been in every movie ever made -- it just feels like it

Kevin Bacon is talking about his penis. It's not his fault -- not exactly, anyway. Bacon didn't bring it up, so to speak. He never does, at least not in public. He's just trying to promote his latest film, the small, supernatural thriller Stir of Echoes. But here he is nonetheless, explaining how it feels to know that the guy he's talking to -- some stranger -- has seen his hang-down, explaining how it feels to know, well, a good handful of people reading this article have seen him in the shower during just one of the many lurid gambits played by last year's Wild Things. That movie was as juicy and as fun a B-film thriller as you could ever hope to see, a guilty pleasure for audiences -- as well as first-time producer Bacon, who, to this day, wonders why it wasn't a hit.

"I wish everybody had seen it," he says with a compact chuckle. He sounds good-natured about it, though perhaps a tinge wistful. "But you know, Wild Things really didn't do that well. I mean it did okay, but I can't say that I wasn't a little disappointed. I thought it was this really cool film, an unusual film. But I'm not sure everybody really got it. It was tongue-in-cheek, didn't take itself too seriously. However, that's a hard thing to explain to people going in, and audiences . . ."

Didn't flock to see it. But those that did couldn't help but notice Bacon. Somehow, amid Neve Campbell going lesbo and Denise Richards going topless and Matt Dillon going all the way with both, Bacon was the actor that people -- those that saw the movie anyway -- talked about, even if it wasn't exactly for all the reasons he hoped.

"I never really expected it to have the impact that it did," he says. He explains that during the first day of a press tour, "something like 27 of 30 reporters asked me about giving The Full Monty. You forget that men never do that in American movies. It just never, never happens. There's this thing about showing your ass that certain kinds of male stars do as a sign of, you know, status or something. I'm not that calculating. As an actor, I think you just try to do whatever works best for the film, try to do something original, maybe not so expected."

It's a fitting take on his entire 21-year movie career. Just when you think you have Kevin Bacon pegged, when you think you know exactly how he's going to be used and what he's going to do, he startles you by showing you something you haven't seen before. His performances are as varied as they are familiar: Now you see him, now you don't.

There were his early stints in coming-of-age classics: as the frat boy taking his licks and asking, sir, can he have another in Animal House; or as the boozing rich kid, Fenwick, hiding in the closet with Daniel Stern in Diner. Then, there were the genial starring roles: as the rebel with a dance card in the impossibly and unexplainably popular confection Footloose and as the father-to-be with a bad case of the freak-outs in John Hughes' quaint but gooey She's Having a Baby.

Next up, solid along-for-the-ride gigs: the medical student who made fun of a little girl in the would-be neo-Brat-Pack vehicle Flatliners; the prosecuting attorney who goes up against Tom Cruise and Demi Moore in the would-be Top Gun-in-a-courtroom A Few Good Men; and as fly-boy Swigert, who got all the babes and Gary Sinise's seat in the would-be epic Apollo 13. In between were the edgy, take-notice supporting turns, including a stop as the flamboyantly frenzied hustler who thinks Kevin Costner is a good-looking man in JFK, followed by his role as the boys' home guard who rapes and abuses young versions of Brad Pitt, Jason Patric and Ron Eldard in Sleepers. Rounding out his resume were memorable appearances in overlooked films: The River Wild and Murder in the First.

Then, of course, there's the classic early role that becomes only more delicious as his career marches on. Bacon played the guy who gets it through the neck in the original Friday the 13th -- the 1980 film conveniently left out of his bio these days, though Bacon's not above bringing it up.

"My career has had valleys to go with the peaks," Bacon points out, perhaps because the word "journeyman" has slipped into the conversation -- though in a good way, really. "Particularly after Footloose had made me the 'It Boy.'" By valleys, no doubt he means his roles in Quicksilver, a movie about a bike courier, and the now-cult horror-comedy Tremors, which starred the dad from Family Ties and that estimable actress Reba McEntire.

"You never get the scripts you deserve," Bacon admits. "It's always based on how much money your last picture made. Anybody that tells you anything different is full of shit."

Maybe, maybe not: After all, Wild Things didn't make much at all: $30 million domestically, or $10 million more than the sassy B-picture cost to make. Yet Bacon wound up starring in (yet another) one of this year's modestly budgeted, well-written, gripping old-school supernatural thrillers. In a summer that's seen horror films such as Artisan's ultra-low budget Blair Witch Project and Buena Vista's The Sixth Sense unexpectedly rake it in at the box office, the optimist offers that Echoes, also released by Artisan, should be a prime property as summer comes to a close.

But Bacon doesn't blindly play the idealist even on a promotional phone call. He knows now is either the most right time for a film such as Stir of Echoes -- about, of all things, a man who sees the dead -- or it's the most wrong time possible. Especially in the wake of The Sixth Sense, which deals with so many of the same themes.

"I wish I didn't have to think so much about how a film is going to fit into the market, but unfortunately I do," Bacon says with the resigned tone of a man who's seen films more than half-full come up empty too many times. "It's one of my least favorite aspects of this business, but it's so important. You have to be concerned. It may be a good time for this sort of movie, but maybe we're too late. We're different than Sixth Sense but there are some common elements. Audiences may think they've already seen it."

Or they may not recognize the film at all. Kevin Bacon's name above the title is not the same as Sixth Sense's star Bruce Willis' -- even though Willis has a so-called Bacon factor of two, according to the infamous Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game (http://www.cs.virginia.edu/oracle/), which proves how every actor in Hollywood can be linked to Kevin Bacon through no more than half a dozen films. (Bruce Willis was in The Player with Robert Wagner, and Robert Wagner was in Wild Things.) And Kevin Bacon's name above the marquee isn't worth even a smidgen of Blair Witch's hype -- even though Blair Witch also has a Bacon factor of two. (Blair Witch's Joshua Leonard is currently filming Navy Diver with Robert De Niro, who was in Sleepers.)

After all, Bacon's name has been above the title almost every time out the gate since Footloose, but has it ever packed a punch? When you see the marquee for Stir of Echoes -- you know, starring Kevin Bacon -- do you really feel anything at all? Likely not -- his is not a name that, as they say, opens movies. Perhaps being "the center of the Hollywood universe," as Movieline quipped, simply means Bacon is one of the most ubiquitous actors working today -- famous only because he seems to have been in every movie made since 1980.

At 41 years of age, he's hardly an icon. Rather, he's a character actor, and a surprisingly youthful-looking one at that. But he doesn't seem to mind his status as the man famous for being, well, famous.

"Some of that stuff used to bother me," he says, referring to the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. "I thought people were making fun. But I'm lucky to have acting and to have acted as long and as often as I have. I look for films where I can do solid characters. That's the challenge for me."

Bacon says that was the attraction of Stir of Echoes, in which he plays Tom Witzky, an Everyman in an Anytown. He's a loving husband and father, a blue-collar worker by day and an aspiring musician by night -- a man still childish and selfish until his eyes are opened to another world and a stronger calling. It's a performance full of nuances usually not found in supernatural fare; it's rare indeed to find such a real person in such fantasy films.

But Bacon insists that's the handiwork of writer/director David Koepp, who has penned the likes of Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Mission: Impossible and more studious work, such as Carlito's Way and his debut, 1988's Apartment Zero. (Koepp made his feature-film directorial debut in 1996 with the peculiar misfire The Trigger Effect.) Stir of Echoes misfires occasionally as well, but with plot points, not character. To that end, Bacon insists he is not a mere dilettante -- a writer who longs to get out from behind the keyboard only to stand behind a camera. Perhaps that's because Bacon has also directed: 1996's Losing Chase, which starred his wife Kyra Sedgwick.

"David's been a successful writer for a long time, but there's a huge difference in writing and directing," Bacon says. "He's still new at it, but he knows it all starts with a good script and good characters. Having directed makes me less tolerant of bad directing. I've been at this for a long time, and I've worked with some good directors, so I know when I'm working with bad one. It's been a long time since I've worked with a director who's worked on as many films as I have."

Next time out, Bacon is partnered with a director who's only made half as many films as him: Paul Verhoeven, the man responsible for the likes of RoboCop, Total Recall, and Sharon Stone's peekaboo in Basic Instinct.

Speaking of Verhoeven, Kevin Bacon is talking about his penis . . . again. And again, it's not exactly his fault. He's just trying to discuss the film he's currently shooting, Verhoeven's new sci-fi flick The Hollow Man, in which Bacon stars as an invisible man.

"Well, I'm invisible so I have to be naked," he says. In the distance, Kyra Sedgwick can be heard asking her husband if he's going to get off the phone any time soon so they can go to lunch. "We're doing all these cut-aways trying not to show anything. Here I am, working with Paul -- I don't know if you've seen any of his early Dutch stuff, but there's one where he shows three guys measuring their cocks -- and he's going out of his way not to get any nudity. But we've got a ways to go. Before we're done, who knows, you still might see my three piece."

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