Philippe PetitWith The Walk set to hit the cinemas in October and starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as Philippe Petit, we went back to basics and examined one of the greatest daredevils in history and how it all happened
Philippe Petit lives in a brown wooden house on the edge of the forest near Woodstock, New York. Snow is falling, and during times like this when the weather doesn’t allow him to walk the high-wire in his garden, Petit stands on the veranda, observing nature. As the sky and the ground take on the same milky colour, his eyes follow a confused- looking rabbit hopping through the cold garden.
Petit claims to have a criminal mind, and it’s true that he’s been arrested often enough to know prison cells from Sydney to Paris inside out. But he’s the kind of troublemaker who can still feel empathy for a freezing rabbit, simply because the animal is unable to escape the cold ground the way Petit does when he balances on a rope hundreds of metres up in the air.
He spans a rope over a canyon, or between two skyscrapers, and dances on it for a couple of minutes, or sometimes hours. The world is his oyster until the frustration and boredom of daily life vanish from his mind, or until the audience applauds – or the police handcuff him.
Name: Philippe Petit
First illegal high-wire walk: June 6, 1971, Notre Dame, Paris
Fines hour: August 7, 1974, New York, walking between the twin towers of the World Trade Center
World Trade Center wire stats: Steel, 200kg, 43m long, 1.8cm wide, 411m high
Further reading: To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit (Faber & Faber)
That’s how it was on the morning of August 7, 1974, when Petit accomplished his most audacious manoeuvre. Attaching a rope to the opposite corners of the World Trade Center’s rooftops in New York, at an altitude of 411m, he performed his act for 45 minutes until he was arrested.
By the next morning, he had become an international star. The arresting officer wrote in his statement: “Petit did not just walk the rope. He jumped, he floated, he ran back and forth, he joked. When he recognised us, he laughed and ran back to the middle of the rope. Nobody will ever do something outrageous like that again. I am grateful to have witnessed this event.”
Those who were not as lucky as the NYPD officer can instead relive the events with Man On Wire, the documentary film account of Petit’s masterpiece and the six years it took him to prepare it.
Ever since he was a little boy, Petit’s anarchic spirit has ordered him to break every bourgeois rule. He was expelled from school five times and found children of his own age unbearably boring and hostile. He disappeared into solitude, slept alongside horses in their stable instead of his own bedroom, and taught himself to perform magic tricks.
Finding he had a gift for sleight of hand, Petit became a gifted pickpocket, and choosing his teachers as victims was the primary cause of his exclusions from school. He claims that he can steal someone’s tie or glasses without being noticed, but today he always returns stolen wallets and jewels before his victims even realise they’re gone.
As a street artist, unicyclist, juggler and illusionist, Petit has ignored every rule created to keep people like him away from pedestrian zones and market squares, but only towards the end of his adolescence did he discover the way to escape the narrow-mindedness of civilisation that would make him famous.
By 1966, Petit had already left school after refusing to take even the most basic exams in literacy and numeracy, and had been emancipated by his parents on his 17th birthday, but it was on his 18th that his brother Alain showed him a book on the high-wire artist Rudolf Omankowsky.
“Immediately, I understood that I had to learn how to walk the wire,” Petit says. “All my doubts, all the time that I spent on learning how to draw, paint, juggle, steal, burglarise, all the energy I wasted on running away – all of a sudden, they crystallised into the most reduced form of existence: a line. So simple, so pure – on the rope, nobody tells you to finish your dish.”
A year later, Petit won a French government grant for talented jongleurs funambule (tightrope walkers), and Omankowsky offered him a job in his troupe Les Diables Blancs (The White Devils). But the thought of repeating the same choreography night after night bored Petit. “I didn’t want to drown in the bureaucracy of a circus, but invent a new form of theatre in the air,” says Petit. “My arrogance got on my colleagues’ nerves and I had to leave.”
One afternoon in 1971, Petit performed his first illegal high-wire act between the towers of Notre Dame. After serving time in prison, it was in the waiting room at the dentist’s that he opened a magazine and discovered a picture of two giant skyscrapers soon to be built in Manhattan…
Philippe Petit does not look like a 60-year-old high- wire artist. As he walks briskly out of his house, he seems to be at least 10 years younger. He is over six feet tall and massive, and he combs his red hair upwards, which makes his appearance even more striking.
Although he has been living in America for more than a quarter of a century, he speaks with a thick French accent. He left his home country in the early 1980s after he decided that people anywhere else in the world would be more friendly and respectful of his work.
He has performed live 78 times in his career, but only once since he achieved worldwide fame has he shown off his skills in France – in 1989, during the celebrations for the bicentenary of the Republic, he ran up a 700m rope to the second level of the Eiffel Tower.
So what is the difference between a high-wire artist who can perform at any height, in any weather, for any duration of time, and a high-wire artist who crashes down when he experiences the slightest breath of wind? Practice. For the past 42 years, Petit has been perfecting his craft for six to seven hours every day. His garden contains a 15m rope on which he can simulate all conditions. Sometimes he asks the neighbours’ kids to shake the wire until he loses balance – but he never does.
“I simply cannot fall,” he says, “because I never think about falling. As soon as I stand on the rope, I feel free; the wind becomes my accomplice. When it blows sideways, I lie down. With headwind or tailwind, I just continue. People ask if I have a death wish – that is insulting. I am not an adventurer or a stuntman. I am an artist. I have a wish for life.”
When asked by a New York judge what his intentions were by walking from one tower to the other, he said simply: “When I see three oranges, I juggle. When I see two towers, I span a wire and walk it.” By this time, in autumn 1974, Petit was a folk hero in America.
Andy Warhol, Robert De Niro and Woody Allen had become his friends, and dozens of companies had offered endorsement deals that could have made Petit a very rich man. He declined because he “dislikes the language of the ad people”, as he describes it. As a result of his simple argument, and perhaps because of his popularity, all 14 charges against Petit were dropped, as long as he would perform a few free shows in Central Park.
On that day in August, 1974, Philippe Petit was born for a second time. Instead of a fanatic or an outsider, he was suddenly one of the celebrities that other celebrities wanted to be seen with.
In order to organise the performance on top of the World Trade Center, Petit had to enter the site like a spy, with fake ID cards. He stole building maps, recreated uniforms, produced aerial views and broke into elevator shafts.
But after the New York gig, none of this was necessary any more, as mayors and companies from every corner of the world begged Petit to visit their cities. Did success deprive his art of one of its central qualities – civil disobedience? “No,” says Petit. “First and foremost, I want to enjoy dancing in the sky. I can easily do so without spending nights afterwards in prison.”
The Walk directed by Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon Levitt will be in cinemas in UK and Ireland from October 9th.