Philippe Petit

Philippe Petit
Petit at the 81st Academy Awards in February 2009
Born (1949-08-13) 13 August 1949 (age 66)
Nemours, Seine-et-Marne, France
Occupation High-wire artist

Philippe Petit (French pronunciation: ​[filip pəti]; born 13 August 1949) is a French high-wire artist who gained fame for his high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, on the morning of August 7, 1974.[1] For his unauthorized feat (which he referred to as "le coup"[2]) 1,350 feet (400 metres) above the ground, he rigged a 450-pound (200-kilogram) cable and used a custom-made 26-foot (8-metre) long, 55-pound (25-kilogram) balancing pole. He performed for 45 minutes, making eight passes along the wire. The next week, he celebrated his 25th birthday. All charges were dismissed in exchange for his doing a performance in Central Park for children.

Since then, Petit has lived in New York, where he has been artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, also a location of other aerial performances. He has done wire walking as part of official celebrations in New York, across the United States, and in France and other countries, as well as teaching workshops on the art. In 2008, Man on Wire, a documentary directed by James Marsh about Petit's walk between the towers, won numerous awards. He was also the subject of a children's book and an animated adaptation of it, released in 2005. The Walk, a movie based on Petit's walk, was released in September 2015, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit and directed by Robert Zemeckis.

He also became adept at equestrianism, fencing, carpentry, rock-climbing, and bullfighting. Spurning circuses and their formulaic performances, he created his street persona on the sidewalks of Paris. In the early 1970s, he visited New York City, where he frequently juggled and worked on a slackline in Washington Square Park.


Early life

Petit was born in Nemours, Seine-et-Marne, France; his father Edmond Petit was an author and a former Army pilot. At an early age, the boy discovered magic and juggling. He loved to climb, and at 16, he took his first steps on a tightrope wire. He told a reporter,

Within one year, I taught myself to do all the things you could do on a wire. I learned the backward somersault, the front somersault, the unicycle, the bicycle, the chair on the wire, jumping through hoops. But I thought, "What is the big deal here? It looks almost ugly." So I started to discard those tricks and to reinvent my art.[3]

In June 1971, Petit secretly installed a cable between the two towers of Notre Dame de Paris. On the morning of June 26, 1971, he "juggled balls" and "pranced back and forth" as the crowd below applauded.[4]

World Trade Center walk

Before his Twin Towers walk, Petit was known to New Yorkers for his frequent tightrope-walking performances and magic shows in the parks of New York, especially Washington Square Park. Petit's most famous performance was in August 1974, conducted on a wire between the roofs of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, a quarter mile above the ground. He performed for 45 minutes, making eight passes along the wire, during which he walked, danced, lay down on the wire, and saluted watchers from a kneeling position. Office workers, construction crews and policemen cheered him on.


Petit conceived his "coup" when he was 18, when he first read about the proposed construction of the Twin Towers and saw drawings of the project in a magazine, which he read while sitting at a dentist's office in 1968.[5] Petit was seized by the idea of performing there, and began collecting articles on the Towers whenever he could.

What was called the "artistic crime of the century" took Petit six years of planning, during which he learned everything he could about the buildings and their construction. In the same period, he began to perform high wire walking at other famous places. Rigging his wire secretly, he performed as a combination of circus act and public display. In 1971 he performed his first such walk between the towers of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris,[1] while priests were simultaneously being ordained inside the building. In 1973 he walked a wire rigged between the two north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in Sydney, Australia.[6]

In planning for the Twin Towers walk, Petit had to learn how to accommodate such issues as the swaying of the high towers due to wind, which was part of their design; effects of wind and weather on the wire at that height, how to rig a 200 ft (61 m) steel cable across the 138 ft (42 m) gap between the towers (at a height of 1,368 ft (417 m)), and how to gain entry with his collaborators, first to scope out the conditions and lastly, to stage the project.[2] They had to get heavy equipment to the rooftops. He traveled to New York on numerous occasions to make first-hand observations.[1]

Since the towers were still under construction, Petit and one of his collaborators, New York-based photographer Jim Moore, rented a helicopter to take aerial photographs of the buildings.[2] Friends Jean-François and Jean-Louis helped him practice in a field in France, and accompanied him to take part in the final rigging of the project, as well as to photograph it. His friend Francis Brunn, a German juggler, provided financial support for the proposed project and its planning.[7]

Petit and his crew gained entry into the towers several times and hid in upper floors and on the roofs of the unfinished buildings in order to study security measures, in addition to analyzing the construction and identifying places to anchor the wire and cavalletti. Using his own observations, drawings, and Moore's photographs, Petit constructed a scale model of the towers in order to design the needed rigging to prepare for the wire walk.

Working from an ID of an American who worked in the building, Petit made fake identification cards for himself and his collaborators (claiming that they were contractors who were installing an electrified fence on the roof) to gain access to the buildings. Prior to this, Petit had carefully observed the clothes worn by construction workers and the kinds of tools they carried. He also took note of the clothing of office workers so that some of his collaborators could pose as white collar workers. He observed what time the workers arrived and left, so he could determine when he would have roof access.

As the target date of his "coup" approached, he claimed to be a journalist with Metropolis, a French architecture magazine, so that he could gain permission to interview the workers on the roof. The Port Authority allowed Petit to conduct the interviews, which he used as a pretext to make more observations. He was once caught by a police officer on the roof, and his hopes to do the high-wire walk were dampened. He eventually regained the confidence to proceed.

On the night of Tuesday, 6 August 1974, Petit and his crew had a lucky break and got a ride in a freight elevator to the 104th floor with their equipment. They stored it just 19 steps below the roof. In order to pass the cable across the void, Petit and his crew had settled on using a bow and arrow attached to a rope. They had to practice this many times to perfect their technique. They first shot across a fishing line, which was attached to larger ropes, and finally to the 450-pound steel cable. The team was delayed when the heavy cable sank too fast, and had to be pulled up manually for hours. Petit had already identified points at which to anchor two tiranti (guy lines) to other points to stabilize the cable and keep the swaying of the wire to a minimum.[2]


Shortly after 7 am local time, Petit stepped out on the wire and started to perform. He was 1350 feet, a quarter mile, above the ground. He performed for 45 minutes, making eight passes along the wire, during which he walked, danced, lay down on the wire, and knelt to salute watchers. Crowds gathered on the streets below, and he said later he could hear their murmuring and cheers.

When NYPD and PAPD Officers learned of his stunt, they came up to the roofs of both buildings to try to persuade him to get off the wire. They threatened to pluck him off by helicopter. Petit got off when it started to rain.


There was extensive news coverage and public appreciation of Petit's high-wire walk; the district attorney dropped all formal charges of trespassing and other items relating to his walk.[8] In exchange, he was required to give a free aerial show for children in Central Park. He performed on a high-wire walk in the Park above Belvedere Lake (known now as Turtle Pond).

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey gave Petit a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers' Observation Deck. He autographed a steel beam close to the point where he began his walk.

Petit's high-wire walk is credited with bringing the Twin Towers much needed attention and even affection, as they initially had been unpopular.[9][10] Critics such as historian Lewis Mumford had regarded them as ugly and utilitarian in design, and too large a development for the area. The Port Authority was having trouble renting out all of the office space.[9]

Mordicai Gerstein wrote and illustrated a children's book, The Man Who Walked Between The Towers (2003) about this, which won a Caldecott Medal for his art. It was adapted and produced as an animated short film by the same title, directed by Michael Sporn and released in 2005, which won several awards.

The documentary film, Man on Wire (2008), by UK director James Marsh is about Petit and his 1974 WTC performance; it won both the World Cinema Jury and Audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival 2008. It combines historical footage with re-enactment and has the spirit of a heist film. It also won awards at the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, and the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2009. On stage with Marsh to accept the Oscar award, Petit made a coin vanish in his hands while thanking the Academy "for believing in magic". He balanced the Oscar by its head on his chin to cheers from the audience.[11]

Later life

Petit has made dozens of public high-wire performances in his career; in 1986 he re-enacted the crossing of the Niagara River by Blondin for an Imax film. In 1989, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, mayor Jacques Chirac invited him to walk an inclined wire strung from the ground at the Place du Trocadéro to the second level of the Eiffel Tower.

Petit briefly headlined with the Ringling Brothers Circus, but preferred staging his own performances. During his stint with the circus and a practice walk, he suffered his only fall, from 45 feet (14 m), breaking several ribs. He says he has never fallen during a performance. "If I had, I wouldn't be here."[12]

Petit regularly gives lectures and workshops internationally on a variety of topics and subjects. He single-handedly built a barn in the Catskill Mountains using the methods and tools of 18th-century timber framers.[13] He wrote his eighth book, A Square Peg. He has also created an ebook for TED Books, entitled Cheating the Impossible: Ideas and Recipes from a Rebellious High-Wire Artist. Petit divides his time between New York City, where he is an artist in residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and a hideaway in the Catskill Mountains.

Among friends who have associated with some of his projects are such artists as: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Werner Herzog, Annie Leibovitz, Miloš Forman, Volker Schlöndorff, Twyla Tharp, Peter Beard, Marcel Marceau, Paul Auster, Paul Winter, Debra Winger, Robin Williams and Sting.[citation needed] Director James Signorelli assisted with the creation of the book To Reach the Clouds (2002), about the Twin Towers walk.[14] In the book, Petit not only wrote about his spectacular feat, and the events of his life which led up to it, but also expressed his feelings following the September 11 attacks during which the Twin Towers were destroyed. He wrote that on that morning, "My towers became our towers. I saw them collapse – hurling, crushing thousands of lives. Disbelief preceded sorrow for the obliteration of the buildings, perplexity descended before rage at the unbearable loss of life."[15] Besides paying tribute to those who were killed, Petit also called for a rebuilding of the towers, promising that "When the towers again twin-tickle the clouds, I offer to walk again, to be the expression of the builders' collective voice. Together, we will rejoice in an aerial song of victory." [16] Notwithstanding Petit's wishes, the Twin Towers were eventually replaced by a different complex of buildings, thus precluding the possibility of Petit (or anyone else) repeating a similar feat at the World Trade Center site.

Legacy and honors

Works and performances

Major high-wire performances

Year Walk [clarification needed] Location Notes
1971 Vallauris Vallauris, Alpes-Maritimes, France performance for artist Pablo Picasso's 90th birthday
Notre Dame Cathedral Notre Dame Cathedral
Paris, France
staged walk between towers without permission
1973 Sydney Harbour Bridge Sydney Harbour Bridge
Sydney, Australia
staged walk between towers without permission
1974 World Trade Center World Trade Center
New York City, New York, United States
staged walk between towers without permission
Central Park Central Park
New York City
Publicly authorized walk on inclined wire over Turtle Pond
Laon Cathedral Laon Cathedral
Laon, France
performing on wire between the cathedral's two spires for an international television special
1975 Louisiana Superdome Louisiana Superdome
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
walk on wire across interior for the opening of the stadium
1982 Cathedral of Saint John the Divine Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
New York City, New York, United States
interior walk in height of nave to celebrate renewal of the cathedral's construction following a 40-year hiatus
Concert in the Sky Denver, Colorado, United States high-wire play directed and produced by Petit for the opening of the World Theatre Festival
1983 Skysong Purchase, New York, United States high-wire play directed and produced by Petit for the opening of "Summerfare," the State University of New York Arts Festival[17]
Centre Georges Pompidou Centre Georges Pompidou
Paris, France
1984 Corde Raide-Piano Volant Paris, France high-wire play directed and produced by Petit with pop-music singer-songwriter Jacques Higelin
Paris Opera Paris Opera
Paris, France
high-wire improvisation with opera singer Margherita Zimmermann
Museum of the City of New York Museum of the City of New York
New York City, New York, United States
high-wire performance for the opening of the museum's Daring New York exhibit
1986 Ascent Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
New York City, New York, United States
concert for grand piano and high wire on an inclined cable above the nave of the cathedral
Lincoln Center Lincoln Center
New York City, New York, United States
high-wire performance for the reopening of the Statue of Liberty
1987 Walking the Harp/A Bridge for Peace[clarification needed] Jerusalem, Israel high-wire performance on an inclined cable linking the Jewish and Arab quarters for opening of Israel Festival under Jerusalemite Mayor Teddy Kollek
Moondancer Portland Center for the Performing Arts
Portland, Oregon, United States
high-wire opera for the opening of the center
Grand Central Dances Grand Central Terminal
New York City, New York, United States
high-wire choreography on wire set above the interior concourse of the terminal
1988 House of the Dead Paris, France creation of the role of the eagle in a production of From the House of the Dead (1930), an opera by Leoš Janáček, directed by Volker Schlöndorff
1989 Tour Eiffel Paris, France spectacular walk – for an audience of 250,000 – on an inclined 700-metre (2,300-foot) cable linking the Palais de Chaillot with the second story of the Eiffel Tower, commemorating the French Bicentennial and anniversary of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, under Parisian Mayor Jacques Chirac
1990 American Overture American Center
Paris, France
high-wire play for the ground-breaking ceremony of the center
Tokyo Walk Tokyo, Japan Japan's first high-wire performance, to celebrate the opening of the Plaza Mikado building in Tokyo's Akasaka district[18][19]
1991 Viennalewalk Vienna, Austria high-wire performance evoking the history of cinema for the opening of the Vienna International Film Festival, directed by Werner Herzog
1992 Namur Namur, Belgium inclined walk to the Citadel of Vauban for a telethon benefiting children with leukemia
Farinet Funambule! Switzerland high-wire walk portraying the 19th-century Robin Hood of the Alps[clarification needed] culminated by harvesting the world's-smallest registered vineyard, to benefit abused children
The Monk's Secret Longing Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
New York City, New York, United States
high-wire performance for the Regents' Dinner, at the centennial celebrations of the cathedral
1994 Historischer Hochseillauf Frankfurt, Germany historic high-wire walk on an inclined cable to celebrate the city's 1,200th anniversary, viewed by 500,000 spectators and the subject of a live, nationally broadcast television special
1995 Catenary Curve New York City, New York, United States performance during a conference on suspended structures, led by the architect Santiago Calatrava
1996 ACT New York City, New York, United States medieval performance to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a New York City youth program[clarification needed]
Crescendo Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
New York City, New York, United States
theatrical, allegorical New Year's Eve performance on three different wires set in the nave of the cathedral as the farewell tribute to The Very Reverend James Parks Morton, Dean of the Cathedral, and his wife Pamela
1999 Millennium Countdown Walk Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History
New York City, New York, United States
Inauguration of the center
2002 Arts on the High Wire January 11, 2002 Hammerstein Ballroom
New York City, New York, United States
benefit performance for the New York Arts Recovery Fund on an inclined wire, with clown Bill Irwin and pianist Evelyne Crochet
Crystal Palace Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
New York City, New York, United States
Crossing Broadway New York City, New York, United States inclined walk, fourteen stories high, for the television talk show the Late Show with David Letterman (performed regularly since 1993)



Year Film Location Role Notes
1983 Concert in the Sky Denver   Centre Productions, Inc., directed by Mark Elliot
1984 High Wire New York   Prairie Dog Productions, directed by Sandi Sissel
1986 Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic Canada Blondin Seventh Man Films for the IMAX System, directed by Kieth Merrill
1989 Tour et Fil France   FR3/Totem Productions, directed by Alain Hattet
1991 Filmstunde Austria   Werner Herzog Productions, directed by Werner Herzog
1993 Profile of Philippe Petit Washington, D.C.   National Geographic Explorer Special
1994 The Man on the Wire Germany   Documentary of the rigging and artistic preparations for Historischer Hochseillauf, Hessischer Rundfunk Television
1994 Historischer Hochseillauf Germany   Live broadcast of the walk, Hessischer Rundfunk Television, directed by Sacha Arnz
1995 Mondo France   Costa Gavras Productions, directed by Tony Gatlif
1995 Secrets of Lost Empires: The Incas Peru   PBS/NOVA and BBC co-production, directed by Michael Barnes
2003 The Center of the World of New York City: A Documentary Film, Episode 8: People & Events: Philippe Petit (1948-) New York City   PBS
2005 The Man Who Walked Between the Towers USA   Michael Sporn Animation and Weston Woods Studios
2008 Man on Wire UK   Wall to Wall/Red Box Films, directed by James Marsh, Academy Award winning documentary
2015 The Walk US   3D biographical drama directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit.

In culture

  • The song, "," by the band '27' is a tribute to Philippe Petit.[20]
  • The song, "Sleepwalking," by Danish composer Ste van Holm is a tribute to Petit's World Trade Center walk.[21]
  • The Low Anthem's song, "Boeing 737", from their 2011 album Smart Flesh, refers to Petit's Twin Towers walk.[22]
  • American rock band Incubus used a photo of Petit as the cover art for their album, If Not Now, When? (2011).
  • Colum McCann's National Book Award-winning novel, Let the Great World Spin (2009), features Petit's Twin Towers walk as its opening passage and a centrepiece to which numerous characters are connected.
  • "Funambulist," a song by American metal band Cormorant, is about his walk between the Twin Towers.[23]
  • The song "Step Out Of The Void" by musician Howard Moss is a tribute to Philippe Petit, in the album Outside the Pale (2013).[24]
  • The song "Man On A Wire" by The Script on their fourth album, No Sound Without Silence, is influenced by Petit's high-wire legacy.

See also



  1. ^ Jump up to: a b c Lichtenstein, Grace (8 August 1974). "Stuntman, Eluding Guards, Walks a Tightrope Between Trade Center Towers". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 April 2008. Combining the cunning of a second-story man with the nerve of an Evel Knievel, a French high-wire artist sneaked past guards at the World Trade center, ran a cable between the tops of its twin towers and tightrope-walked across it yesterday morning. 
  2. ^ Jump up to: a b c d Marsh, James (Director) (2008). Man on Wire (Documentary). 
  3. Jump up ^ Tomkins, Calvin, "The Man Who Walks on Air," New Yorker Magazine, 1999, excerpted in Life Story, by David Remnick, Modern Library Paperback edition, 2001.
  4. Jump up ^ "Sneaky Juggler Has Ball Up In Sky At Notre Dame". The Ogden-Standard Examiner (AP story). June 27, 1971. p. 1. 
  5. Jump up ^
  6. Jump up ^ Man On Wire DVD, "Philippe Petit's Sydney Harbor Bridge Crossing" bonus feature.
  7. Jump up ^ Higginbotham, Adam (19 January 2003). "The second part of Philippe Petit's story". The Guardian (London). 
  8. Jump up ^ Lichtenstein, Grace (8 August 1974). "Stuntman, Eluding Guards, Walks a Tightrope Between Trade Center Towers". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 October 2010. 
  9. ^ Jump up to: a b "Before & After; Talking of the Towers" The New York Times.
  10. Jump up ^ Kilgannon, Corey (7 August 2005). "Tightrope Walk Between Twin Towers Is Recalled". The New York Times. 
  11. Jump up ^ kingkongphoto123 (2009-02-22). "My hero Phillipe Petit wins Oscar". YouTube. Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  12. Jump up ^ Adam Higginbotham, "Touching the Void", The Observer,19 January 2003
  13. Jump up ^
  14. Jump up ^ To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers - Philippe Petit - Google Books. Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  15. Jump up ^ To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers - Philippe Petit - Google Books. Retrieved 2012-06-27.
  16. Jump up ^ To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers - Philippe Petit - Google Books. Retrieved 2012-06-27.
  17. Jump up ^ ROBERT SHERMAN, "FESTIVALS ENDING", New York Times, 7 August 1993
  18. Jump up ^ "Edward Suzuki Profile". Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  19. Jump up ^ "Press Material - Philippe Petit" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  20. Jump up ^ "27 - Man On Wire (Re-Wire)". YouTube. 1974-08-07. Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  21. Jump up ^ "sleepwalking_lyrics". Ste van Holm. Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  22. Jump up ^ Jackson, Dan (8 April 2011). "Low Anthem's Circus High-Wire Act". Spin. Retrieved 24 May 2011. 
  23. Jump up ^ Gotrich, Lars. "Cormorant: Follow the Blackened Thread". NPR Music. Retrieved 10 March 2012. 
  24. Jump up ^

Further reading

Articles and interviews

External links