Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”
His stunning 1974 high-wire walk across New York City’s ill-fated Twin Towers was chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” (2008), and again in the narrative flick “The Walk” (2015).
This week, Philippe Petit will perform “Wonder on the Wire” twice at D.C.’s National Building Museum.
The first performance is Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Great Hall. After cocktails on the second floor with photos and videos of Philippe’s past performances, dinner will be served in the center court. From here, guests will watch Philippe’s performance on a wire above them, accompanied by jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen with Tal Mashiach on guitar.
Tickets to the fundraising event must be bought in advance.
“My wire is 50 feet high and roughly 100 feet across, I am four stories high, so it calls people’s attention,” Petit told WTOP.
“I am going to pay my homage to one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, which has the tallest and largest columns in the world inside. It’s a gorgeous space that not enough people, in my opinion, know about in Washington, D.C. I am very happy to be offering my talent to this prestigious institution.”
Philippe will perform again on Friday, this time at a private show for local invited school children, primarily from Title 1 schools. Each class will receive a copy of the Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” as well as supplemental learning activities and lesson plans about the art of engineering.
“I love to direct my art toward kids,” Petit said.
“I am a magician, and it is wonderful to do magic tricks to kids. They are a tough audience. Kids sometimes these days, with all of their electronic devices, are hard to focus on things, so it will be interesting to see a few hundred kids sitting on the floor in awe of a man walking above in thin air. I love the fact that a book that was inspired by me, ‘The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,’ got a Caldecott award!”
In both cases, there will be no safety net beneath him, but Petit insists that he doesn’t need one.
“There is a very strong safety net inside of my mind, which I have woven over 50 years,” Petit said.
“I am in a place of self-made zen. I have found out that the best equilibrium for focus is to not forget about the world around you, but to keep your antennas open. Obviously, my entire being, my entire body and soul is focused on that wire, but by experience I can smell, I can hear, I can see all around me.”
Born in Nemours, Seine-et-Marne, France in 1949, Petit began practicing on wires tied between trees.
“When you look at a master of an art, it’s always interesting: how did they start?” Petit said.
“My story is very strange and unconventional because my parents were not in the circus world. I had to fight my family and my surrounding authorities to become a self-taught wire-walker. I think it came from the love to climb, and maybe psychiatrists will say when I am dead, the love to look at life from a different perspective, thus to fly.”
He gained global attention with his surprise high-wire act between the two bell towers at the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, on June 6, 1971, a stunt that would have made even Quasimodo jealous.
“I was a young kid and nobody wanted to hire me, so I thought, well, I don’t really need permission,” Petit said.
“After a long time of finding out how I could put a wire illegally between the towers of Notre Dame, I displayed myself one morning and a giant crowd came out. The police, of course, arrested me. After that, I was on the front page all over the world. A few years later, I was between pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia.”
He upped the ante by walking between the Twin Towers in New York City on Aug. 7, 1974, just a year after the World Trade Center technically opened in 1973. The surprise stunt was pulled off by a crack team of cohorts who snuck into the building under the cover of night to string the wire across the two towers, allowing Petit to cross.
“They were finishing up the top of the building and that’s what allowed me to disguise myself with a borrowed helmet, become a construction worker and sneak through,” Petit said. “I can assure you it was not a James Bond type of team. It was friends found from the sidewalk or somebody you bump into on an elevator by accident!”
What did he feel while standing out on the wire, maintaining his balance amid the wind?
“I made a very important discovery for mankind: I discovered that the earth is round!” Petit said. “As I looked at the horizon past the Verrazzano Bridge, I could see the faint line between the sky and the sea and it was not a straight, horizontal line, it was slightly curved, so I realized after Galileo many hundreds of years later, oh, our planet is a sphere!”
On a more intimate note, he claims that he even spoke to a skeptical bird.
“I laid down on the cable to salute the sky, to feel my presence between the towers, then a sea bird came hovering over me with a red eye,” Petit said. “It was not a friendly face on that bird. It was like, ‘What are you doing in our territory? You are trespassing!’ And the bird was right, I was trespassing, but I remember this silent dialogue. I won’t tell anyone what I said to the bird or what the bird said to me, but it was an other-worldly encounter.”
When the towers fell in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Petit felt a whirlwind of emotions.
“One can imagine my feeling of me losing the monument that I would call ‘My Towers’ — now I would call them ‘Our Towers,’ of course — but you cannot compare this soul-like feeling of losing a structure with losing thousands of human lives, so I have decided in front of the press to keep those two things separate,” Petit said.
Seven years later, filmmaker James Marsh chronicled Petit in the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” (2008), followed by Robert Zemeckis’ narrative film “The Walk” (2015), starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“It was wonderful,” Petit said. “The documentary because of its style was a small film and we filmed in my estate, I had built a barn, so we filmed in the barn … then Zemeckis was the opposite. It was Hollywood in all its grandeur. I was very happy when I could teach Joseph Gordon-Levitt to walk on a tight-rope, on a little piece of cable. That made Zemeckis’ life easier because the actor can actually do some of the action instead of a stuntman.”
This August, Petit will turn 74 years old, but he is not done yet, saying, “I am thinking of celebrating in a very beautiful, unusual way the 50th anniversary of my walk between the Twin Towers, so more to come.”
Until then, he is starting to think about the legacy that he will someday leave behind.
“It is nice when people are inspired by not so much what you have done, but your spirit,” Petit said. “I have a spirit of someone who breaks the rules, somebody who moved mountains to make his dreams come true. That is contagious. When people say, ‘I saw your performance yesterday and now I feel that nothing is impossible,’ that is the greatest compliment. That is what I would like to leave on earth after I fly away and go back to my planet.”
Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”