Meet the Man Who Tempted Death for 45 Minutes at the Top of the World Trade Center
Frenchman Philippe Petit is arguably the world’s best high-wire performer. He inspired and dazzled the world with his acts before the age of internet virality.
In 1971 at the age of 21, he performed his first walk between the towers of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. Two years later in 1973, he walked a wire between the two north pylons of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Sydney, Australia.
His death-defying and illegal high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974 at the age of 24 is the basis of the recently released film “The Walk,” which is directed by Robert Zemeckis and stars Joseph Gordon Levitt as a young Petit.
Petit began planning his World Trade Center walk at the age of 17 when he read about the construction of the Twin Towers in a magazine at a dentist’s office. Over the coming years he studied the building, collecting articles and taking many trips to New York to plan out what would be known as the “artistic crime of the century.”
His collaborators helped him build a scale model of the towers to practice on, and his friend Francis Brunn helped to fund his stunt. After many nights of sneaking into the towers disguised as workers to haul up their equipment, Petit was ready.
On the night of Aug. 6, 1974, Petit and his friends used a bow and arrow attached to a fishing line to pull the 450-pound steel cable Petit would be walking on between the towers. Having almost dropped the cable, it took hours to drag it up and secure it.
Finally, just after 7 a.m in the morning on Aug. 7, Petit stepped out onto the wire 1,350 feet above the ground. Crowds gathered to watch and cheer from below as police officers rushed up the building to get Petit down.
“Well, the eight crossings in 45 minutes that I did, I didn’t even know,” Petit told NextShark. “I was not aware of the time. I wasn’t looking at a watch.”
“It was my friends who told me that I spent that much time and did that many crossings, but to me, after the first crossing and I knew the cable was not a complete disaster, I started abandoning myself to performing. To the people below, I was just a dot in the sky. It was a strange kind of performance because the audience had not been officially invited — it was illegal.”
When the police learned of his stunt, they rushed up both towers to persuade Petit to come down, even threatening to pull him off using a helicopter. After 45 minutes of walking the wire, it began to rain and Petit came down.
He was arrested for his stunt, but because it brought so much attention and fame to the then-unpopular towers, the district attorney dropped all charges of trespassing in exchange for Petit giving a free aerial show for children in Central Park. The New York Port Authority also gave Petit a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers’ observation deck.
On if he fears death:
“I’m not afraid of dying because I love life too much. Also I’m not afraid of mystery. Mysteries attract me. We still don’t know what birth is, we don’t know completely, and we don’t know what death is. So for some people, it’s a dead end.”
“For me, it’s maybe an exploration. I do not fear exploration even if it’s an exploration that is going to swallow me. I would say it’s better to explore than to put yourself under God and call it living. So the boundary of life that we call death does not bother me. I have a life wish, not a death wish.”
“If death means losing the wire, then I have no fear of losing the wire because when I’m on the wire, I’m so solid I know that I cannot get off that wire.”
On how he’s able to live such a daring life:
“I thinks it’s passion, probably. I keep singling out this word as being the single line through my life. What is it to be passionate? Well, as a kid, it is to love something and do it all day long.”
“I did play with magic and juggling and high-wire, which I learned by myself, which is unusual for a kid of 14 or 16 years old, and I loved it so much that I did it basically all day long. That’s why I was thrown out of five or six different schools.”
“Also I had a taste for performing and a taste for trying to reach perfection. I was a rebellious little kid, and I was dreaming of doing things as perfectly as possible. And since I love performing, I became the performer that we know today.”
“But there is no recipe, I think, of what to become. You can study all you can but it’s still something you will never put into an equation or enter in a mathematical formula on a blackboard. It is poetry. It is passion. It is what your heart tells you to do.”
“There is no answer and I am so glad there is no answer, except maybe be passionate, follow your intuition, try to make your dreams come true and don’t let anybody tell you that something is impossible.”
On his influences as a performing artist:
“In France back then when I started, I didn’t have heroes but I had a lot of conscious and unconscious teachers that were some amazing performers. Some were alive and I went to see them perform and some I became their best friends. Some were no longer alive but I studied them, and they became a big inspiration.”
“I became a very good friend of a man who is no longer with us, and his name is Señor Wences and he was a wonderful ventriloquist — actually he is the father of modern ventriloquism. He could be seen on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ To live with this guy and to accompany him on his performance was an immense inspiration to me.”
“Another man I should mention that is also well known in the world of juggling because he is also the best juggler in the world is Francis Brunn. He is a German man who came to America and he was quite famous here, and he became my best friend.”
“Imagine a kid growing up and having his best friends be some of the best artists in the world; it was a great artistic education. And I continue to be inspired sometimes even by a painting in a museum. I’ll spend one hour in front of a specific painting and it will be like meeting a great artist and being inspired to do things.”
On what the process of having a movie made about him was like:
“The movie was based off my book, ‘To Reach the Clouds.’ Of course, today it has been retitled ‘The Walk.’ I wasn’t completely enthusiastic at the beginning when Mr. Zemeckis proposed the movie, but then I realized it’s going to be a wonderful adventure and I said yes. It was a 9-year process of making the movie, and I was very involved in collaborating with Mr. Zemeckis in the beginning.”
“I was actually going to be on the screen doing my own street juggling, my own wire walking, my face talking to the audience, but at some point the movie changed direction and the powers that be decided a young actor should play me and they chose Joseph Gordon Levitt. And I immediately imposed to the production that I should be the one teaching him how to walk on the wire.”
On what it was like working with Joseph Gordon Levitt:
“It was wonderful to work with Joseph because many movie stars are going by fame and fortune and ego, but this young actor has managed to keep his soul pure to my eyes and he came to these one-on-one workshops which was only for eight days which is not enough to learn.“
“He came with an openness of heart, curiosity, tenacity and stamina that allowed him to not only walk on the wire, but to learn a little bit of my way of walking on the wire, which is very different from the wire walkers you see in the circus simply because I was not born in the circus. He was also doing much more in the workshops than learning the wire. He was learning to become me and I think he did a wonderful job on the screen.”
On whether the public will see him walk the wire again:
“Yes, yes, yes. I actually practice three hours a day these days outside on the wire, doing magic and juggling, and I will basically never stop. I continue to perform, maybe not as many performances as I did when I was 18, but I actually feel like I’m in the best time of my art.”
“I have a command and solidity that I didn’t have when I was a stupid little 18-year-old trying to prove himself. At 66, I’m actually glad I don’t need to prove anything, and I just continue to practice and perform and try to do the best I can do.”
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