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Kevin Bacon and the Long Shadow of ‘Footloose’

The young theater actor wanted to be Robert De Niro. But the smash 1984 teen drama ended up turning him into the kind of pop star that always made him uncomfortable. His career ever since has been a journey to both escape and make peace with that film’s legacy.

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Musicians, if they hang around long enough, sometimes denigrate their early hits. Kurt Cobain grew sick of the frat guys who loved “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and Radiohead wrote a whole song about the fact that they were tired of people knowing them only for “Creep.” Sometimes, what first makes you successful starts to feel like a prison rather than a window to an exciting new world. 

The same phenomenon can happen for actors, who are grateful for their big break but don’t want to get pigeonholed in a particular role. They can spend the rest of their career fighting that impression, or maybe they just finally accept it. Or maybe they luck out and be Kevin Bacon.

There was a Kevin Bacon before Footloose. He was the nerdy ROTC cadet Chip Miller in National Lampoon’s Animal House, and he showed up in the original Friday the 13th. He’d done soap operas and worked a lot in New York theater. (“[T]here was no talk about how to do a movie or a TV show,” Bacon said of the cliquish theater world. “In fact, it was looked down upon.”) If he’d had exactly the career he had wanted when he was young, maybe he would have done a lot more movies like Diner, the 1982 buddy film that was Oscar-winner director Barry Levinson’s debut. 

A smart, nostalgic look at male friendship in the 1950s, the low-budget movie, filled with then-no-name actors including Mickey Rourke and Steve Guttenberg, received terrific reviews and became a hit, something that Bacon wasn’t expecting. “I’m always sorta surprised that something I’m involved in is going to do well,” he said at the time. “I don’t know why. I’m just insecure, I guess, that way.” 

Diner was a comedy but also a serious drama filled with East Coast actors, and so Bacon felt right at home. But although he’d been trained in New York to reject stardom as some sort of artistic compromise, he’d always wanted it. Earlier this summer, while taking part in the Wired Autocomplete Interview, in which actors answer the most-Googled questions about themselves, Bacon responded to “Why is Kevin Bacon famous” with a wry laugh and this comment: “Kevin Bacon is probably famous because Kevin Bacon has worked so hard his whole life at becoming famous.”

Which is how Footloose came along. Others, including Rob Lowe, had also been up for the part of Ren, the brash Chicago teen who moves to nowhere Oklahoma, trapped in a town where dancing has been outlawed. Footloose was a new version of a familiar narrative — a Rebel Without a Cause tale of youthful rebellion in which the old squares try to keep the kids down, man. It’s the kind of movie you go for if you want to be very famous.

Not that Bacon entirely understood the movie they were making. “I knew Herb Ross was a choreographer and came from a dance background,” Bacon has said, referring to Footloose’s director, “but if you read the script all it actually says is that we go to a dance. It says nothing at all about choreography. All it says about what turns out to be my big solo number is that Ren … drives along, parks his car, gets out and dances.”

That number turned out to be an elaborate, emotional sequence in which Ren dances out his anger and insecurities. Not being a trained dancer, Bacon needed help to execute all of Ren’s complicated, athletic moves. “I had a stunt double, a dance double and two gymnastics doubles,” he said in 2011. “There were five of us in the fucking outfit, and I felt horrible.” Clearly, this was a far cry from the world of serious theater, but it was very much in keeping with an MTV aesthetic that was quickly invading Hollywood films aimed at teenagers. Like its more-adult cousin Flashdance, which had come out the previous year, Footloose was all about its quick cutting and energetic pop soundtrack. (Basically, it was a movie that occasionally contained music videos within it.) And although Footloose mostly got bad reviews, critics generally sensed something special in Bacon.

“Bacon isn’t a trained dancer,” David Denby wrote in his snide New York review, “but everything he does — opening a car door for his girl, lugging a sack in a factory — seems charged by some dazzling rhythm playing in his head. He convinces us that this boy could be blessed just because he loves to move.”

When Footloose became a hit, ending up as one of 1984’s highest-grossing films, Bacon immediately felt suspicious of the attention that came his way. “The problem was, Footloose was kind of the opposite of what the kind of actor I wanted to be,” he admitted in 2015. “I wanted to be in Ordinary People, The Great Santini. I didn’t want to be in [expletive] Footloose. So I think I was kind of resistant to [the attention].”

In other words, like a band that gets big off a song that’s really mainstream — and maybe not entirely representative of their sound or aesthetic — Bacon found himself pushing against his own success. (“I was being rewarded for, y’know, tight pants,” he said later.) Bacon idolized 1970s actors like Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. He didn’t want to be a matinee idol.

“I wanted to be Kevin Kline — do Shakespeare and then go and get a big movie and everyone thinks you’re great,” he told The New York Times about his thought process back then. “I was doing as much as I could Off Broadway. I absolutely refused to move to L.A., because L.A. meant I was going after being a pop star. Then all of a sudden I turned around, and I was this big pop star. I didn’t feel like what was happening to me was deserved. Or maybe I wasn’t ready for it. So subconsciously, I think, I started to undermine that.”

It’s also worth pointing out that, although he played a teenager in Footloose, he wasn’t a kid. Bacon was 25 when the movie came out in February 1984, far older than the actors who played his classmates. (Ironically, he was only about 14 years younger than John Lithgow, who portrays the grumpy reverend who doesn’t want those darn kids dancing to the devil’s rock ‘n’ roll music.) After Footloose, Bacon suddenly had to face the fact that he was too old for other teen roles, without any guarantee that audiences would accept him as an adult. 

Little wonder he struggled for years after that, unable to find a film that caught on with either critics or audiences. I’m not going to list all the movies — you can look here if you want — but just know it’s mostly a litany of ideas that didn’t work. And even when they did — The Big Picture saw him teaming up with future Best in Show filmmaker Christopher Guest on his directorial debut — they failed to light up the box office. Or, in the case of the cheesy Flatliners, he was part of a hit that was fairly forgettable. Or, and perhaps most rewarding, he’d do something like Tremors, the delightfully tongue-in-cheek horror movie that saw him battle killer worms. But audiences didn’t get it, although Bacon tried about a quarter-century later to revise his character McKee in an unproduced follow-up TV series because he never stopped thinking about him.

“He was such a fascinating character to me because he’s such an ordinary man; not that smart, not that special, and yet he had this extraordinary circumstance that he had to sort of step up to the plate for,” Bacon said earlier this year about McKee. “I thought to myself, ‘If you take that away, if they just went away, those worms, what does a guy like that do? The rest of his life has now really become uninteresting,’ so exploring that I thought would be fun.”

Tremors was also noteworthy because it marked the end of the period where he, for all intents and purposes, stopped being a leading man. He didn’t stop being in films — far from it — but he let go of that idea that he had to continue down the path that Footloose had set him on. Stardom had been his dream in the 1980s. The 1990s were going to require something different.

“The only way I was going to be able to work on ‘A’ projects with really ‘A’ directors was if I wasn’t the guy who was starring, because they can’t afford to set it up with me, even if they wanted to,” he explained in 1994. “You can’t afford to set up a $40 million movie if you don’t have your star.” 

That might sound falsely modest or just plain wrong — the guy most certainly was and is a movie star — but Kevin Bacon’s Footloose period was, in hindsight, a strange aberration in his career. Some movie stars are Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks — A-listers who get you to see something specifically because they’re in it — while others are Kevin Bacon, who you’re very happy to learn is also in that movie. It’s not an insult to actors in that latter category to make that distinction — some guarantee big box office, and some just don’t — and Bacon understood that, which is perhaps why he did some of his best work backing up Costner, Cruise and Hanks. 

Indeed, JFK, A Few Good Men and Apollo 13 saw him playing supporting roles that allowed him to pop in ways that he didn’t when he was the bland everyman lead. Bacon has often talked about how, when he went back and saw his audition for Footloose, he’s struck by how cocky and hungry his younger self was. You feel that in these early-1990s supporting roles — once again, he had something to prove. That’s especially true of his role as Willie O’Keefe in JFK — he’s barely in the film, but he leaves an impression.

The 1990s were also when Bacon took more risks, playing the bad guy in The River Wild and a cop in the knowingly sleazy crime thriller Wild Things. He just worked a lot, which drew the attention of a group of students at Albright College who, in 1994, were watching Footloose and wondered how many random actors you could connect to Bacon through shared screen credits. And thus “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” was born, a popular game that Bacon initially hated. “It was so annoying,” he said 20 years after the game launched. “I thought it was a joke at my expense. I thought somebody was trying to pick the biggest loser they could find and joke about the fact I could be connected to Laurence Olivier in two steps. When you fight so hard and put your sweat and blood into trying to have your work speak for itself, I found it belittling. I mean, do you want to be the guy with a game named after you or be the one with 18 Oscar nominations?”

Bacon has since made his peace with the ongoing popularity of his namesake game, even building a charity around the whole six-degrees concept. But like with Footloose, I suspect it’s something that he’s had to learn to take in stride. It’s not dissimilar to how he’s a running pop-culture reference in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, in which Star-Lord considers Footloose to be the greatest film ever made. Let the record show that Bacon loves Guardians of the Galaxy, but as with the game, there’s a certain wink-wink-nudge-nudge to Star-Lord’s adoration for Footloose and, by extension, Kevin Bacon. It’s an acknowledgement that it’s a very silly thing that was, at one point, a very big deal.

He has never been able to fully escape Footloose, especially after a remake came out in 2011. Bacon is so associated with the role, and like a lot of young bands with early success, he really bristled at that association. “In retrospect, I probably should’ve embraced it more,” he said about a decade ago. “But the movie became a teen phenomenon, and I was hell-bent on being a ‘serious actor.’ I wanted to be Robert De Niro, and I was Bobby Sherman.” In recent years, he’s been a good sport, reprising his role in a 2014 Tonight Show bit and duly answering questions about the movie from fans. (He will, however, draw the line at getting up and dancing to Kenny Loggins’ theme song at weddings: “I go to the disc jockey and hand him $20 and say, ‘Please don’t play that song.’ Because a wedding is really not about me. It’s about the bride and groom, and it’s embarrassing.”)

For most of his career, Bacon has longed to be a serious actor. That’s the word he uses when he’s talking about his acting heroes, whom he once referred to as “all these serious dudes.” Bacon has done plenty of dramatic work, but perhaps it’s his curse that we will never think of him as a serious dude. He’s too self-deprecating. He’s too charming and unassuming. He’s the type of guy who you’d imagine would get up and dance to “Footloose” because he just seems like he’d be amenable to that. 

But when Kevin Bacon’s legacy is discussed, I’m hoping it ends up being about more than Footloose, although that will clearly lead his obituaries. Few saw it, yet he was terrific in a 2009 HBO film called Taking Chance, about a Marine who transports the body of a fallen comrade to its final resting place. It’s one of the sparest films he’s ever done — his character is a stoic military man, and the story follows the strict, regimented procedure of how a dead soldier is buried — but it’s among the most moving of Iraq War dramas. The lack of emotion on Bacon’s face — his character has a job to do, and he won’t let feelings get in the way — speaks to the enormous, unquestioning sacrifice that so many military men and women undergo, but also the invisible wounds they’re carrying around with them. Bacon’s character didn’t know this dead soldier, but Taking Chance shows how everyone in the military is connected — the death of one affects them all.

Bacon won a Golden Globe for the role and received, to date, his only Emmy nomination. (He’s never gotten an Oscar nomination, let alone 18.) Taking Chance is the kind of leading-man performance that’s worthy of the serious actors he emulated in his youth. If Bacon will probably always be defined by Footloose, it’s only fair that Taking Chance be there as well. Sometimes a band’s best-known songs aren’t their best. Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper.