Philippe Petit

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Philippe Petit
Petit at the 81st Academy Awards in February 2009
Born(1949-08-13) 13 August 1949 (age 64)
Nemours, Seine-et-Marne, France
OccupationHigh-wire artist
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Philippe Petit
Petit at the 81st Academy Awards in February 2009
Born(1949-08-13) 13 August 1949 (age 64)
Nemours, Seine-et-Marne, France
OccupationHigh-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, New York, on 7 August 1974.[1] For his feat (which he referred to as "le coup"[2]), he used a 450-pound (200-kilogram) cable and a custom-made 26-foot (8-metre) long, 55-pound (25-kilogram) balancing pole.

Early life[edit]

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 he discovered magic and juggling. At 16, he took his first steps on the wire. Petit learned everything by himself as he was being expelled from five different schools. "Within one year," he told a reporter, "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] He also became adept at equestrianism, fencing, carpentry, rock-climbing and the art of bullfighting. Spurning circuses and their formulaic performances, on the sidewalks of Paris he created his street persona. In the early 1970s, he frequently juggled and worked on a slack rope in New York City's Washington Square Park.

Beginning in the 1970s, Petit began eyeing world-famous structures as stages for high-wire walks, which he executed as a combination of circus act and public performance. He performed his first such walk between the towers of the Notre Dame de Paris. In 1973, he walked a wire rigged between the two north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in Sydney, Australia.[4]

World Trade Center walk[edit]

Petit's most famous work was his performance which he executed at the World Trade Center (Twin Towers) in Manhattan.


He was first inspired to attempt what he called his "coup" on the Twin Towers while he sat in his dentist's office in Paris in 1968. In a magazine, he came upon an article about the yet-to-be constructed buildings, along with an illustration of the model. At this time, Petit began collecting articles on the Towers whenever he was able to.

The "artistic crime of the century" took six years of planning, during which Petit learned everything he could about the buildings, taking into account such problems as the swaying of the towers because of wind, and how to rig the steel cable across the 200 ft (61 m) gap between the towers (at a height of 1,368 ft (417 m)). He traveled to New York on several occasions to make first-hand observations. Since the towers were still under construction, Petit and New York-based photographer Jim Moore went up in a helicopter to make aerial photographs of the trade center.[2] His friend Francis Brunn, the German juggler, provided financial support for the attempt and its planning.[5]

Petit snuck into the towers several times, hiding on the roof and other areas in the unfinished towers, in order to get a sense of what type of security measures were in place. Using his own observations and Moore's photographs, Petit was able to make a scale model of the towers to help him design the rigging he needed to prepare for the wirewalk. He 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 towers. Prior to this, to make it easier to get into the buildings, Petit 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 he could blend in with them when he tried to enter the buildings. 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 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, but he eventually regained the confidence to proceed.

On the night of Tuesday, 6 August 1974, Petit and his crew were able to ride in a freight elevator to the 104th floor with their equipment, and to store this equipment just nineteen steps from the roof. In order to pass the cable across the void, Petit and his crew had settled on using a bow and arrow. They first shot across a fishing line, and then passed larger and larger ropes across the space between the towers until they were able to pass the 450-pound steel cable across. Two cavaletti (guy lines) anchored to other points on the roof were used to stabilize the cable and keep the swaying of the wire to a minimum.[2]


On Wednesday, 7 August 1974, shortly after 7:15 a.m., Petit stepped off the South Tower and onto his 3/4" 6×19 IWRC (independent wire rope core[6]) steel cable. He walked the wire for 45 minutes, making eight crossings between the towers, a quarter of a mile above the sidewalks of Manhattan. In addition to walking, he sat on the wire, gave knee salutes and, while lying on the wire, spoke with a gull circling above his head.

As soon as Petit was observed by witnesses on the ground, the Port Authority Police Department dispatched officers to take him into custody. One of the officers, Sgt. Charles Daniels, later reported his experience:

I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Unbelievable really....Everybody was spellbound in the watching of it.[7]

Petit was warned by his friend on the South Tower that a police helicopter would come to pick him off the wire unless he got off. Rain had begun to fall, and Petit decided he had taken enough risks, so he decided to give himself up to the police waiting for him on the South Tower. He was arrested once he stepped off the wire. Provoked by his taunting behaviour while on the wire, police handcuffed him behind his back and roughly pushed him down a flight of stairs. This he later described as the most dangerous part of the stunt.[8]

His high-wire performance made headlines around the world. When asked why he did the stunt, Petit would say, "When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk."

Although movie cameras were on the roof during the walk, the person who was supposed to film the walk did not do so, apparently due to exhaustion from pulling the heavy cable tight after some of it had fallen, creating slack while the rigging was being set up.[9]


The extensive news coverage and public appreciation of Petit's high-wire walk resulted in all formal charges relating to his walk being dropped[10] in exchange for what was supposed to be a free show of juggling for a few children in Central Park. Instead, he transformed it into another high-wire walk, in the Park above Belvedere Lake (which has now become Turtle Pond). Petit was also presented with a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers' Observation Deck by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He autographed a steel beam close to the point where he began his walk.

Petit's high-wire walk is credited with bringing the then rather unpopular Twin Towers much needed attention and even affection.[11][12] Up to that point, critics such as historian Lewis Mumford had regarded them as ugly and utilitarian. The Port Authority was having trouble renting out all of the Towers' office space.[11]

Sandi Sissel filmed the original act and released it as the cinema verité documentary, High Wire (1984), with music derived from Philip Glass's Glassworks.

The documentary film Man on Wire by UK director James Marsh, about Petit's 1974 WTC performance, won both the World Cinema Jury and Audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival 2008. The film also won awards at the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Petit was on stage to help accept the award, making a coin vanish in his hands while thanking the Academy "for believing in magic" and then balanced the Oscar by its head on his chin to cheers from the audience.[13]

Later life[edit]

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 a 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 circus life did not agree with him. It was during his stint with the circus that he suffered his only fall, from 45 feet (14 m) during a practice walk, breaking several ribs. He says he has never fallen during a performance. "If I had, I wouldn't be here."[14]

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 the 18th-century timber framers;[citation needed] and currently,[when?] he is working on 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.

Among his friends who have associated themselves with some of his projects are such diverse 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.[15]

Petit has been presented with the James Park Morton Interfaith Award, the Streb Action Maverick Award, The Byrdcliff Award, is the recipient of the New York Historical Society Award and was made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. Petit shares 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 Catskills.

Major high-wire performances[edit]

YearWalk[clarification needed]LocationNotes
1971VallaurisVallauris, Alpes-Maritimes, Franceperformance for artist Pablo Picasso's 90th birthday
Notre Dame CathedralNotre Dame Cathedral
Paris, France
1973Sydney Harbour BridgeSydney Harbour Bridge
Sydney, Australia
1974World Trade CenterWorld Trade Center
New York City, New York, United States
Central ParkCentral Park
New York City, New York, United States
inclined walk over Belvedere Lake[clarification needed]
Laon CathedralLaon Cathedral
Laon, Picardy, France
crossing between the cathedral's two spires for an international television special
1975Louisiana SuperdomeLouisiana Superdome
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
walk for the opening of the stadium
1982Cathedral of Saint John the DivineCathedral of Saint John the Divine
New York City, New York, United States
walk celebrating renewal of the cathedral's construction following a forty-year hiatus
Concert in the SkyDenver, Colorado, United Stateshigh-wire play directed and produced by Petit for the opening of the World Theatre Festival
1983SkysongNew York, United States[clarification needed]high-wire play directed and produced by Petit for the opening of the State University of New York Arts Festival
Centre Georges PompidouCentre Georges Pompidou
Paris, France
1984Corde Raide-Piano VolantParis, Francehigh-wire play directed and produced by Petit with pop-music singer-songwriter Jacques Higelin
Paris OperaParis Opera
Paris, France
high-wire improvisation with opera singer Margherita Zimmermann
Museum of the City of New YorkMuseum 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
1986AscentCathedral of Saint John the Divine
New York City, New York, United States
concert for grand piano and high wire on an inclined cable over the nave of the cathedral
Lincoln CenterLincoln Center
New York City, New York, United States
high-wire performance for the reopening of the Statue of Liberty
1987Walking the Harp/A Bridge for Peace[clarification needed]Jerusalem, Israelhigh-wire performance on an inclined cable linking the Jewish and Arab quarters for opening of Israel Festival under the auspices of Jerusalemite Mayor Teddy Kollek
MoondancerPortland Center for the Performing Arts
Portland, Oregon, United States
high-wire opera for the opening of the center
Grand Central DancesGrand Central Terminal
New York City, New York, United States
high-wire choreography above the concourse of the terminal
1988House of the DeadParis, Francecreation 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
1989Tour EiffelParis, Francespectacular 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 the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen under the auspices of Parisian Mayor Jacques Chirac
1990American OvertureAmerican Center
Paris, France
high-wire play for the ground-breaking ceremony of the center
Tokyo WalkTokyo, JapanJapan's first high-wire performance to celebrate the opening of the Plaza Mikado building in Tokyo's Akasaka district[16][17]
1991ViennalewalkVienna, Austriahigh-wire performance evoking the history of cinema for the opening of the Vienna International Film Festival under the direction of film director Werner Herzog
1992NamurNamur, Belgiuminclined walk to the Citadel of Vauban for a telethon benefiting children with leukemia
Farinet Funambule!Switzerlandhigh-wire walk portraying the 19th-century Robin Hood of the Alps[clarification needed] culminated by the harvest of the world's-smallest registered vineyard to benefit abused children
The Monk's Secret LongingCathedral of Saint John the Divine
New York City, New York, United States
high-wire performance for the Regents' Dinner commencing the centennial celebrations of the cathedral
1994Historischer HochseillaufFrankfurt, Germanyhistoric 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
1995Catenary CurveNew York City, New York, United Stateshumorous interlude during a conference on suspended structures given by the architect Santiago Calatrava
1996ACTNew York City, New York, United Statesmedieval performance to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a New York City youth program[clarification needed]
CrescendoCathedral 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
1999Millennium Countdown WalkRose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History
New York City, New York, United States
Inauguration of the center
2002Arts on the High WireHammerstein 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 PalaceJacob K. Javits Convention Center
New York City, New York, United States
Crossing BroadwayNew York City, New York, United Statesinclined walk, fourteen stories high, for the television talk show the Late Show with David Letterman (since 1993)



1983Concert in the SkyDenverCentre Productions, Inc., directed by Mark Elliot
1984High WireNew YorkPrairie Dog Productions, directed by Sandi Sissel
1986Niagara: Miracles, Myths and MagicCanadaBlondinSeventh Man Films for the IMAX System, directed by Kieth Merrill
1989Tour et FilFranceFR3/Totem Productions, directed by Alain Hattet
1991FilmstundeAustriaWerner Herzog Productions, directed by Werner Herzog
1993Profile of Philippe PetitWashington, D.C.National Geographic Explorer Special
1994The Man on the WireGermanyDocumentary of the rigging and artistic preparations for Hisorischer Hochseillauf, Hessischer Rundfunk Television
1994Historischer HochseillaufGermanyLive broadcast of the walk, Hessischer Rundfunk Television, directed by Sacha Arnz
1995MondoFranceCosta Gavras Productions, directed by Tony Gatlif
1995Secrets of Lost Empires: The IncasPeruPBS/NOVA and BBC co-production, directed by Michael Barnes
2003The Center of the World of New York City: A Documentary Film, Episode 8: People & Events: Philippe Petit (1948-)New York CityPBS
2005The Man Who Walked Between the TowersUSAMichael Sporn Animation and Weston Woods Studios
2008Man on WireUKWall to Wall/Red Box Films, directed by James Marsh, Academy Award winning documentary


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lichtenstein, Grace (8 August 1974). "Stuntman, Eluding Guards, Walks a Tightrope Between Trade Center Towers; Free Performance Due 200 Planning Trips". 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. ^ a b c Marsh, James (Director) (2008). Man on Wire (Documentary). 
  3. ^ Tomkins, Calvin, "The Man Who Walks on Air," New Yorker Magazine 1999, excerpted in life story, by David Remick, Modern Library Paperback edition, 2001.
  4. ^ Man On Wire DVD, "Philippe Petit's Sydney Harbor Bridge Crossing" bonus feature.
  5. ^ Higginbotham, Adam (19 January 2003). "The second part of Philippe Petit's story". The Guardian (London). 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "People & Events: Philippe Petit (1948-)" in Episode 8: The Center of the World of New York City: A Documentary Film broadcast on American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service in 2003
  8. ^ Yabroff, Jennie (2008-07-18). "He Had New York At His Feet". Newsweek. Retrieved 17 August 2008. 
  9. ^ Damon Smith, James Marsh, "Dancing in the clouds", Filmmaker Magazine, Summer 2008.
  10. ^ Lichtenstein, Grace (8 August 1974). "Stuntman, Eluding Guards, Walks a Tightrope Between Trade Center Towers". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 October 2010. 
  11. ^ a b "Before & After; Talking of the Towers" The New York Times.
  12. ^ Kilgannon, Corey (7 August 2005). "Tightrope Walk Between Twin Towers Is Recalled". The New York Times. 
  13. ^ kingkongphoto123 (2009-02-22). "My hero Phillipe Petit wins Oscar". YouTube. Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  14. ^ Adam Higginbotham, Adam (19 January 2003). "Touching the Void". The Observer.
  15. ^ To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers - Philippe Petit - Google Books. Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  16. ^ "Edward Suzuki Profile". Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  17. ^ "Press Material - Philippe Petit". Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  18. ^ "27 - Man On Wire (Re-Wire)". YouTube. 1974-08-07. Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  19. ^ "sleepwalking_lyrics". Ste van Holm. Retrieved 2012-06-27. 
  20. ^ Jackson, Dan (8 April 2011). "Low Anthem's Circus High-Wire Act". Spin. Retrieved 24 May 2011. 
  21. ^ Gotrich, Lars. "Cormorant: Follow the Blackened Thread". NPR Music. Retrieved 10 March 2012. 
  22. ^

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Articles and Interviews[edit]

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