Philippe Petit: The Tightrope Walker Who Is Not Afraid

Phillip Petit (1949) is a tightrope walker known for having passed the test of crossing the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. He has also walked a tightrope over iconic buildings such as Notre Dame Cathedral and the space between the Eiffel Tower and the Chaillot Palace in Paris, as well as the Louisiana Superdome and the Lincoln Center in the United States.

Traditional school was never a place for little Philip Petit to stand out, but from the age of 6 he was already studying magic tricks. At the young age of 8 he was a master of cards.

In his teens he was already an acrobat, mime, tightrope walker and magician. Her father, Edmond Petit, was a pilot in the French Air Force, but far from following in her father’s footsteps, Philipe had a passion for street art and dedicated her life to that.

The young street artist, in the style of medieval minstrels, preferred to be entertaining tourists on the streets of Paris, than to attend classes. For this reason, when he turned 18, he had been expelled from five schools.

After strolling through the range of street shows of the time, he discovered, at the age of 16, the act that would change his life, tightrope walking. He practiced a tightrope for a whole year before making his first presentation.

What is a tightrope walker?

A tightrope walker is the acrobat who exercises on the tightrope.

The list of world-renowned artists is not very long. Some of the best known are Nick Wallenda (United States) -owner of 6 Guiness records-, Charles Blondin (France) -who in 1859 crossed Niagara Falls- and Adili Wuxor (China) -who has to his credit the record of having spent the longest time walking a tightrope, 60 days-.

This list of intrepid acrobats, led by Phillipe Petit, whose feat of walking without any protection between the two Twin Towers of New York, remains, to this day, the most famous and never before repeated challenge.

Although most of the known representatives of this art are men, some women also practice it, such as Maria Spelterini (Italy), who walked on the wire above Niagara Falls in 1876.

Following the feat, this pioneer became the first and only woman to take this test to date. 

Permanent innovation

Tightrope walking reinvents itself and its exponents look for innovative ways to capture the public’s attention. Not only walking a tightrope is surprising, this is how we see acts in which the daring artists carry other people on their shoulders, ride unicycles, bicycles and even motorcycles.

Now the funanbulistas do routines with trained animals, they cook, eat, lie down and even go through wires inside a sack. Everything is valid when it comes to standing out. The higher the degree of difficulty, the better.

The artistic crime of the century

In 1974, the Twin Towers of New York of the World Trade Center, located in lower Manhattan, were the tallest buildings in the world. They were inaugurated on April 4, 1973. This city has hosted countless events that have meant a milestone in history.

One of these events was “The artistic crime of the century.” This is how the feat of the young 24-year-old French street artist, Philippe Petitt, was described, who managed to circumvent all security controls and installed a wire between the space that separates the two buildings to perform the most famous act of tightrope walking of all time .

Pettit recounted after his feat that the idea came to him while reading a magazine in the waiting room of a dental office about the construction of the monumental towers. Immediately the artist imagined himself walking on top of the towers and began planning his big act.

He traveled from France to New York at the end of 1973 and spent months visiting the towers. In order not to arouse suspicion, he disguised himself as a tourist, journalist or worker in order to take photos and measurements of the structure.

During his inspection routine, he managed to add allies and accomplices, and little by little he began to enter the cables and the necessary equipment to the towers.

Entrance to the Towers

The date set was August 7, 1974. The night before Petitt and his allies entered the towers and hid, to fulfill the dream that occurred to the young tightrope walker since he was 17 years old.

The two teams were arranged on the roof of each of the towers and communicated by radio. They spent the night installing the rope and all the lines that reinforced it and gave it stability. To pass the rope from one side to the other, they tied a fishing line to an arrow and with a bow they shot towards the other roof.

Throughout the night they dedicated themselves to assembling and securing the structure and hiding when security guards passed by making their rounds. At dawn, everything was ready for the most daring act of tightrope walking in history.

Without authorization and without security equipment, Philippe Petitt walked on the morning of August 7, 1974 on the tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center at a height of 417 meters. Passersby saw him and within minutes a crowd was watching his act.

The cops went up to arrest him, but Petitt took his time. It crossed the wire for 45 minutes. He went back and forth 8 times. He was so comfortable that he was encouraged to do tricks on the rope.

When he got off he was arrested and tried, but his feat was so unique that the judge sentenced him to give a performance in Central Park in New York to pay for his fault.

Documentary, film and the Oscar

The act of Philippe Petitt served as inspiration for the realization of two film works. The documentary Man on Wire , a UK production directed by James Marsh, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2008.

He also won BAFTA, Sundance, Toronto and New York Film Critics Circle Awards. All in the same year.

During the Oscar delivery, Philippe Petitt himself took the stage and although the award was not for him as the protagonist, he dedicated the triumph to his wife and thanked the academy for believing in magic.

The Walk  (The Walk), directed by the award-winning director Robert Zemeckis, was a film released on September 26, 2015. The budget for its production was 35 million dollars and it grossed 61 million dollars at the US box office.


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