11/03/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
In nearly 40 movies since breaking out in 1984 as Footloose's dance-crazy city boy, Kevin Bacon has played everything from an unlucky astronaut (Apollo 13) to an invisible psychopath (Hollow Man). But it was his role in a little-seen car chase that would help him land one of the best received parts of his career. Bacon, 45, had long wanted to be directed by Clint Eastwood—only he'd never met Clint. So in 2000, he ducked out of Hollow Man's French premiere as the lights were dimming to drive to a restaurant at which he'd heard Eastwood was dining. For 45 minutes, "I raced through the countryside, chased by paparazzi the whole way," says Bacon. "I pulled up to the restaurant, went in and said, 'Hi. Nice to meet you. I've always wanted to work with you.' He said, 'Great.' I went back to the screening and got there just as the lights were coming up."
Turns out, risking a speeding ticket was worth it. Under Eastwood's direction in Mystic River, Bacon is earning raves. As Sean Devine, a cop investigating the murder of a former friend's daughter, Bacon is "so good, and so unshowy," said the Boston Globe. "Superb," said The New York Times. "Everybody else gets to run around chewing up scenery," says Dennis Lehane, who wrote the novel Mystic River, of a cast that features Sean Penn, Laura Linney and Tim Robbins. "Then there's Kevin, very quietly taking you through the film."
Bacon, too, is proud of his performance—though modest as ever. "I've got a lot of experience. I think my instincts are pretty good. They haven't always been—I had to suck a lot before I got good," he says over breakfast at a favorite restaurant near the Manhattan home he shares with actress wife Kyra Sedgwick, 38. He pauses, a smile breaking across his angular face. "I'm still going to suck again."
But career hits and misses, says Bacon, matter less to him since he became a family man. He met Sedgwick in 1987 while making a PBS movie, Lemon Sky. Married the following year, the couple have two kids, Travis, 14, and Sosie, 11. "I've had great successes, but a lot more disappointments, I think," says Bacon. "A lot of why I'm still here is because of Kyra. Things fall down. She helps put the pieces back together." The union is solid despite its inauspicious beginning. At first, "I thought he was incredibly cocky and bought into his whole movie-star persona," Sedgwick told PEOPLE last year. "That was just his front. He was really very shy and funny about himself"—qualities evident to anyone who caught Bacon's self-mocking cameo on Will & Grace last season, when he sent up Footloose and played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with Sean Hayes. Says Bacon of the parlor game: "I joke my epitaph will be 'No Oscars but at least he had a game named after him.' "
Music also helps keep Bacon mellow. As the Bacon Brothers, he and Michael, 54, who grew up in Philadelphia with four sisters (dad Edmund is a retired city planner and architect; mom Ruth, a teacher, died in 1991), have put out four CDs. None have busted Billboard, but that's fine with him. "We don't play poker, we don't go to strip clubs," he says. Music "is our hang." The week Mystic River opened, Bacon had five gigs that had been booked months in advance. He shrugs. "Life's a juggle."
Next he and Sedgwick will balance working and living together when he directs her in Loverboy, a mother-and-son drama. That, along with the kids and the band, is enough to distract Bacon from dwelling on the fact that a Footloose for the next generation is in the works. Still boyish himself, Bacon looks dismayed. "A movie I was in is old enough to be remade?" he says. "That's a little distressing."
Sharon Cotliar and Marisa Wong in New York City