Two steps to the Duke
He died when I was a teenager, so I’ll never get to meet the man.
But – as an experiment – I wondered how long of a human chain existed between me and someone who’d met the famous actor.
Six degrees of separation. That’s the popular notion that, despite the fact some 250 million people live in the United States, we’re only about six people away from knowing anyone else.
The concept caught on after a 1967 experiment by the prominent social psychologist Stanley Milgram.
Milgram sent roughly 300 letters to randomly selected people in Omaha, Neb., and asked them to contact a “target” person in Boston through people they knew on a first-name basis.
Sixty letters reached the target, and Milgram found that the letter senders and the target were linked by an average of six people.
The six degrees of separation concept got even wider currency through an award-winning play and 1993 film of that name. Another fad developed – “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
Some bored Pennsylvania college students figured out that almost any modern-day actor could be linked, in six steps or less, to Kevin Bacon, a young actor who was never a big box office draw but has appeared in dozens of movies.
But is six degrees of separation really true?
Researchers are putting a finer point on it now.
It looks like social connections may hinge on people who are “hubs” – sociable, well-connected people who seem to know everyone else. Most people have a core group of friends, but these extraordinary people know thousands of others and can link everybody together.
To find my John Wayne connection, I went looking for just such a person.
I called around, asking people if they knew someone who knows everyone else.
“Dodi Stucky,” said Karen Chileski, a well-connected woman who’s lived in Nevada County since 1979 and, until recently, was chairwoman of the Nevada County Republican Central Committee.
A retiree who now lives at Sierra Pines Mobile Home Park in Grass Valley, Stucky worked for 12 years as a secretary at the front door of NBC’s studio in Burbank.
“I had the best job in the whole place,” Stucky said. “Everybody who came in … had to come by my (desk). There’s not many (celebrities) that I haven’t met.”
What’s more, Stucky’s husband Lon (now deceased) worked for 27 years at NBC as a lighting director and won three Emmy Awards.
He regularly worked with such celebrities as Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra.
“He was the best in the business,” Dodi Stucky said.
As for John Wayne, she said, “I only met John once. I did not know him. But I was introduced to him.”
I’ll take it! So that’s two degrees of separation between me and the Duke: me, Chileski, Stucky – and John Wayne.
Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg
But the key was finding Dodi Stucky – the woman who knew all the celebrities.
The importance that well-connected people play in the six degrees of separation phenomenon was driven home in a 1999 New Yorker magazine article, “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.”
It’s about a Chicago grandmother, Lois Weisberg, the commissioner of cultural affairs for the city of Chicago.
“Lois is a type … she’s the type of person who seems to know everybody, and this type of person can be found in every walk of life,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell, the article’s author.
Gladwell goes on to speculate that “people who know everyone, in some oblique way, may actually run the world. They spread ideas and information. They connect varied and isolated parts of society.”
For example, when Milgram analyzed his experiment, he found that well-connected people played a big role.
The “target” in Milgram’s experiment was a stockbroker who lived in Boston. Sixty randomly selected people in Omaha sent letters to this man through people they knew on a first-name basis.
But a funny thing happened by the time the 60 letters were handed over to the stockbroker.
Instead of the stockholder getting letters from 60 separate people, just three men handed over half of the letters, Gladwell wrote.
One man – a clothing merchant Milgram called “Mr. Jacobs” – delivered 16 letters.
So, “Six degrees of separation doesn’t simply mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked through the world through those few,” Gladwell writes.
The Oracle of Kevin Bacon
But there’s even another twist: These key, well-connected people don’t just know a lot of people – they know a lot of people in a lot of different worlds, Gladwell writes.
This is illustrated by a Web site, “The Oracle of Bacon at Virginia.”
It puts the Kevin Bacon parlor game on the Internet. You simply type in an actor’s name and a computer rummages through the Internet Movie Database of some 250,000 actors and tells you how the actor you picked is linked to Kevin Bacon.
For example, John Wayne has a “Bacon number” of two.
The Web site says, “John Wayne was in ‘The Longest Day’ (1962) with Robert Wagner. Robert Wagner was in ‘Wild Things’ (1998) with Kevin Bacon.”
But it turns out Bacon isn’t the best-connected actor in show business.
While Bacon has been in lots of movies with lots of different actors, he only ranks 668th in average “degree of connectedness” among actors, Gladwell wrote.
Other actors can be connected more quickly. Among the top 15 are Robert Mitchum, Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland, Rod Steiger, Shelly Winters and Burgess Meredith, wrote Gladwell.
“What sets someone like Meredith apart is his range,” he wrote.
John Wayne made 183 movies in his 50-year career, yet only ranks 116th in terms of connectedness.
“More than half of John Wayne’s movies were Westerns, and that means he made the same kind of movie over and over again.
“Burgess Meredith, by contrast, was in great moves, like the Oscar-winning ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1939) and in dreadful movies, like ‘Beware! The Blob’ (1972).
“Burgess Meredith was the kind of actor who was connected to everyone because he managed to move up and down and back and forth among all the different worlds and subcultures that the acting profession has to offer,” Gladwell wrote.
And Burgess Meredith’s Nevada County connection?
“His son (Jonathan) lives” in Nevada City, Stucky said. So does the widow of the late actor. “I had dinner one night with all of them.”
– The “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg” – a famous New Yorker magazine article explaining the importance of well-connected people in connecting us all.
– The Oracle of Bacon at Virginia. This Web site lets you see how many degrees of separation exist between any actor and Kevin Bacon.
– Small World Research Project. You can participate in a worldwide experiment to determine how many degrees of separation exist between people via e-mail.
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