BACON: An engineer of the silver screen

If you fire up Google and type in the words ‘Bacon number’ followed by an actor’s name, it’ll give you (surprise!) that actor’s Bacon number. I recently tried this on myself. The result took me in a wholly unexpected direction: into the the life story of an aeronautics engineer who accidentally became a Hollywood director's favourite character actor.

For those who aren’t aware, a Bacon number counts how many links it takes to connect any actor to Kevin Bacon; where each link is a pair of actors who’ve appeared in a movie together. So:

  • Kevin Bacon has a Bacon number of zero – let's call that BN=0
  • Lori Singer (who co-starred with him in Footloose) has BN=1
  • Robert Downey, Jr has BN=2, because he appeared in Short Cuts with Lori Singer.

Even though there are a couple of million actors on IMDB, it turns out that barely any lie more than six links away from the entirely arbitrary nexus of Mr Bacon. Hence Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. This is a classic small world phenomenon, of the kind that crops up in all kinds of relationship networks. Six degrees is sufficient to link any two individuals in a whole range of systems, from internet nodes to friendship relationships. This magic number six was first posited by the writer Frigyes Karinthy in 1929, since when it's proved remarkably resilient. 

This is why a lot of people recently sat to attention when Facebook announced that, among its 1.6 billion user base, the average number of friendship links between any two people is a mere 3.5. I'm not convinced this is such a new phenomenon, since Facebook are talking about the average number of links whereas ‘six degrees of separation’ is an upper limit on the number of links – but hey: let's not let the facts stand in the way of a good media story about Our Connected World.

A six degree network - visualisation by Daniel Walker, licensed under GFDL (

A six degree network - visualisation by Daniel Walker, licensed under GFDL (

I find this stuff fascinating; so when I came across this ‘Bacon number’ easter egg on Google the first thing I did was google my own number. This was vain, yes, but not total hubris. I do in fact have a Bacon number: because, many years ago, I was a child actor. I figured I would score as low as three (ie just below average) on the basis that:

  • I was in a BBC drama called The Lost Boys (not the Kiefer Sutherland film – I wish) with Ian Holm.
  • Ian Holm was, terrifyingly, Sigourney Weaver's co-star in Alien.
  • Sigourney Weaver was, I thought, in The River Wild with Kevin Bacon.

*Family Fortunes WRONG siren*

Nope. It was Meryl Streep who starred in River Wild, not Sigourney. And sure enough when I Googled my Bacon number I found it isn’t three, after all. No, dear reader: it is two. I have BN=2. Putting me in the elevated company of a mere 366,414 other actors, according to The Oracle of Bacon. Here’s how Google gets me to this golden number:

So there you have it. My single link to Kevin Bacon is the great Ralph Tab–

Wait, hold on: Ralph who?

First things first, though: It's true that I appear in Barry Levinson’s 1985 movie Young Sherlock Holmes – in the pivotal role of Dudley’s Friend (3)This was the only Hollywood gig I ever had, during my eight-year acting career,  It represented three months work, the output of which was a single line of dialogue plus about twenty ‘astonished-face’ reaction shots. In return for which I received a big enough paycheck to keep me in vinyl, scotch and comics through my whole university career. So truly, I'm not knocking it.

But even I have to admit that the film is a turkey of giant proportions. It’s a shame, as it could so easily have been a delightful adventure film – ahead of its time, even. Years before the Harry Potter franchise, it aimed to be a mash-up of a public school costume drama and a fantasy actioner. Plus it had some genuinely scary special effects, notably one where the knight from a stained-glass window came to life and ran Paddy Newley through with a translucent sword. Unfortunately, though, Chris Columbus’ screenplay sucked. (As the cast was well aware. As we wandered disconsolately back to our trailers after a scene we could sometimes be heard singing, 🎶They all laughed at Christopher Columbus / When he said the script was good...🎶) 

The story was creaky as a floorboard in the night. Possibly its greatest low was the point where Holmes pilots a Hudson Hawk-style flying machine; but the thing that especially bugged this young Conan Doyle nerd at the time was the anti-canonical premise that Holmes and Watson met while they were at school. As this suggests, Columbus and Levinson had little interest in the Holmes mythos, or in creating an accurate period setting. I remember one particular scene, shot in the vast panelled dining hall of Radley College. For your convenience, the present author's position in this scene is highlighted in the following still:

The HAIR. Am I right?

The HAIR. Am I right?

See that soup I'm eating? Oxtail. Stone cold oxtail – and me a vegetarian at the time. I had to keep on eating it, though, through 15 takes and a reverse. Hell, I suffered for my art.

Right of frame is Holmes, played by newcomer Nicholas Rowe. In this scene he’s freshly arrived at school, and his new friend Watson is showing him the ropes. The scene came early in the shooting schedule, and I was still overwhelmed by the level of resource thrown into every single setup in a major movie, compared to the UK TV dramas I'd been in up to then. While dozens of crew angled lights and wafted dry ice about the room, Barry Levinson prepared us for the scene. In his tan leather bomber jacket and baseball cap, he resembled nothing more than Kenny Everett playing a Hollywood director. He walked us through the action: Holmes is reading a book at the dining table, serious-like, when BOOM! he looks up and spies love interest Sophie Ward, walking past the window. And scene.

The serious-minded Rowe listened intently. But Barry, he said, this is a British public school. Surely Holmes wouldn't be allowed to read a book at the dinner table? The great auteur stroked his stubble. You know, what, Nick? he said. You're right. I can see it now. Lorene and Larry from Shitsville, Ohio have come to see our movie. At first they're kind of enjoying it, but then – THEN! Aw, shucks, this kid's reading a dang book at the dinner table! That ain't right!

Way to put down the new kid, Barry. This routine was funny, but it revealed the zero interest Levinson had in making a movie that would appeal to a Holmes aficionado. Or, indeed, to a British person. This is not to put Levinson down. He's one of the great creators of Americana. Diner, Bugsy and Good Morning Vietnam are all wonderful movies. Laced with affection and world-weary nostalgia, they reflect the best and worst in the US character. Young Sherlock, by contrast, presents a vision of Britain about as nuanced as a 20-foot inflatable beefeater singing The Lambeth Walk while spraying jellied eels into the air.

But it's Levinson’s pitch-perfect ear for a certain mellow variety of modern American myth that brings us back to the mysterious Ralph Tabakin. Or not so mysterious. When I googled him, it turned out I knew exactly who he was – I just never realised who he was.

To Levinson, Ralph Tabakin represented the true spirit of post-war, pre-Wire Baltimore. A Federal Aviation Administration engineer with honourable wartime service, Tabakin retired in the 1960’s and began a second career in community theatre, working as director and coach to young actors. Which is how he stumbled into his third career as a much-loved character actor. Levinson noticed Tabakin as he was helping prepare a group of acting students to audition for Diner. As Tabakin recalled in a 1999 Baltimore Sun interview, “This prematurely gray young man comes over, says, ‘Hey you! Ever been in an appliance store?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘You like black-and-white TV or color?’ ‘Black-and-white. Looks more realistic.’ ‘Good,’ he says. ‘I like that.‘ ” This turned out to be Tabakin’s own audition, and it landed him the delicious cameo of a curmudgeonly shopper in the TV store where Daniel Stern's character is working.

What Levison saw in him, in that moment when he wasn’t even acting, is what he continued to give in 15 more Levinson movies, as well as the Levinson TV franchise Homicide, where Tabakin played the deliciously morbid medical examiner Dr Schiener. And if, in his screen appearances, he sometimes has the air of an old guy who's accidentally wandered onto the set, I suspect that's the very quality Levinson loved. The lopsided hangdog of his face was the product of a World War II mortar shell fragment that left him in a coma for six weeks; but he incorporates it into a laconic on-screen persona that we can only assume was also his actual persona. “What Ralph does is mysterious to me,” said Levinson. “In 20 years, I’ve never been able to describe the magic of what he does. He finds humour in situations in this eccentric way that’s totally natural.” To get a sense of what Levinson means, here's the scene from Diner, including that improvised bit about black and white TV:

There’s something more to this story than the hackneyed 42nd Street-style, Say! Maybe the kid can play the star role after all! tale of accidental stardom. Partly because Tabakin was never remotely a star, and had zero star quality. His genius, rather, was to exist so comfortably within the woodwork of a movie that he's both totally forgettable and impossible to ignore.

And here, I don’t think I’m stretching a point too far to say, here’s where you really want an engineer.

This at last is the real theme of this rambling piece: my admiration for engineers, in spite – or probably because – of the fact I know I’ve never had the hands-on chops to be one. Software engineers, genetic engineers, post-war aeronautical engineers: all share certain stalwart qualities. Qualities I also see in Tabakin’s acting. A directness; a complete lack of interest in the surface of things, in decoration; an impatience with flim-flam and hoo-hah; a single-mindedness that can often translate into arrogance, yet combined with the ability to submit their egos – at least temporarily – to the thing, the process, they’re inhabiting while they’re at work on a project; a humility in the face of the problem they’ve set out to solve; that they won't rest until they see solved.

Tabakin sometimes has, I think, an air of the amateur, compared to more polished performers, yet there’s a zen kind of rightness about his undecorated delivery, about his shuffling presence; about the way he cuts to the truthful, absurd essence of the dialogue he's given. It's the engineer in him, I think, that gives him that ability, and no amount of acting school could ever have taught it to him. 

There’s an engineering concept I’ve referenced more than once in my writing: the kludge (properly pronounced ‘kloojh’ though most people seem to say it the way it looks, including the hard ‘d’). This is a – usually critical – term for a hasty solution that’s been cobbled together to get a job done, probably badly. The term is common in Tabakin’s own field of aeronautical engineering. It refers to a scrabbled together aircraft that’s barely airworthy, but good enough to work as a proof of concept. Engineers generally detest a messy inconclusive kludge; but sometimes, against all odds, one ends up working so perfectly that everybody decides to simply leave it running. And it turns out to be magnificent.

Tabakin’s acting career was the best kind of kludge – the wrong component, picked up and used on the spur of the moment to fulfil an immediate need, that ended up as an integral part of the machine. He shouldn’t have worked in this wholly unfamiliar context; and yet he soared.

Only one question remains to be answered. How and where did this quintisentially Baltimore old geezer find a place in the hokey Victoriana of Young Sherlock – without which I would not have gained my elevated Bacon number of 2? The answer is, in the role of Policeman in Shop Window:

...a role that makes Dudley's Friend (3) seem almost central to the film; yet this tiny cameo, which was only there so Levinson could stick to his uninterrupted record of casting Tabakin in every one of his films – this was sufficient to grant me my BN=2. I can only be grateful to the excellent Mr Tabakin, for completing this final piece of wiring on my behalf.