There’s a fine line between audacity and ambition. Philippe Petit walked that line – and lived to tell the story.
In 1974, the French tightrope artist, with the help of a motley crew of accomplices, illegally rigged a wire between the rooftops of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, unveiling a staggering aerial showstopper that saw the then-24-year-old trek between the two buildings in a breathtaking burst of derring-do and elan.
“I was half man, half bird dancing in the sky with the biggest city in the world looking at me,” Petit, now 66, tells PEOPLE of his feat, which was the basis for the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire and is now the inspiration behind the rousing film The Walk, starring a nimble Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Frenchman.
With New York City as both unwitting host and enthralled spectator, Petit traveled eight times between the two towers for 45 unnerving minutes – prancing, smiling, kneeling and, at one point, lying down on that wire. By the time Petit landed in the hands of police perched at the precipice of the South Tower, he was a global sensation.
That vertiginous coup was the apex of an all-consuming obsession of Petit’s that took more than six years to plan and execute. But successfully pulling it off was a precarious balancing act in itself.
“I felt cold, probably because I was so exhausted and dehydrated,” Petit recalls about that morning, as he watched the sunrise from the South Tower. “It was so beautiful that I stopped my mad rigging job and I contemplated the beauty of the morning light invading and waking up that giant city that I love.”
Petit – a self-taught street artist and performer – had been awake for 36 hours straight by the time he got to that rooftop, having staged an overnight cat-and-mouse operation that saw him and his crew pose as deliverymen and construction workers so they could secretly lug their equipment to the top. At one point, Petit and an accomplice hid for hours underneath a huge tarp covering an open shaft that plunged into a steel abyss, while an unsuspecting security guard roamed nearby.
By dawn, as Petit frantically finished rigging the cable, he could hear the city rustling awake. “I call it the murmur of the city,” he says. “It gave me energy, like the blood of the city was entering my own veins.”
At 7:15 a.m., as he clutched a balancing pole with both hands, Petit placed his left foot on the wire, his right leg anchored to the tower: “That first step – it’s a point of no return.”
But, Petit says, he was unable to command his right leg to move. “I could not make that decision. It was too enormous.” Suddenly, “without asking me, my right leg went onto the cable,” he marvels. He began to walk.
“The minute I felt the cable was safe enough, then I started enjoying myself,” Petit recalls. “And then I started performing, all improvised.”
He swears he remembers hearing the crowd below. “I felt, maybe it was in my imagination, that I could hear the people talking,” he muses. “I don’t know, it was impossible, I was too high. But I did feel very connected to that crowd.”
At one point, he was hit by air turbulence. “The wind was not in a constant direction that I could fight,” he says, so he lowered his center of gravity to counter it. “The air is dancing around you and pushing you.”
Petit – who had also staged similar high-wire acts atop Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral and Australia’s Sydney Harbour Bridge – then broke a tightrope artist’s cardinal rule: He looked down. There, 110 stories up, he took it all in: a plaza under construction, traffic that had come to a halt, a workaday audience that “felt like a hundred thousand people.”
Petit was promptly arrested as soon as he stepped off that wire, but a judge gave him a free pass if he agreed to mount a tightrope show for kids in Central Park.
He hasn’t stopped walking that wire since: These days, Petit – who for years lived in a downtown loft with a view of the towers but now spends most of his time upstate in Woodstock, New York – still practices on the wire six days a week, three hours a day. He’s written 10 books and remains an artist-in-residence at New York City’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, often traveling the world for lectures.
But as he looks back on the one feat that remains his hallmark, he says a particular thought never crossed his mind: to call it quits.
“I had worked nonstop for 6 ½ years in making that dream come true. Certainly the idea of abandon was not hovering over me,” he explains. “Not one second during that amazing, panic-like evening and morning did I think of giving up, to run away in fear, to abandon my dream.”
No, on that beautiful August day, 1,300 feet above a gasping, mesmerized crowd, Petit was determined to scale new heights. And what a towering achievement it was.