It’s hard to imagine anyone stretching a cable between two tall towers today and then walking the high wire, a quarter-mile above Earth.
That’s what Philippe Petit did on Aug. 7, 1974. His friends counted eight crossings over the 200 feet of cable. Petit, then 24, danced on it for 45 minutes before landing in the arms of police.
A friend on the north tower who shot photographs was to have taken 16mm film of the feat, using a rented camera. But to save the photographs he'd taken the friend took off when he saw police come onto the roof, Petit said Sunday night in Champaign.
“The fact there is no footage is kind of legend,” he added.
The 63-year-old Petit, wearing a cap, brown leather vest over a khaki shirt and pants and boots, bounded down the aisle of the Art Theater in Champaign after the Oscar-winning documentary, “Man on Wire,” was screened to a packed house there on Sunday evening. He received a standing ovation.
“That’s a very nice way to start an evening,” he said.
He then took questions in rapid-fire style. One man told him he was courageous and asked Petit whether he could explain his faith in doing the impossible.
“No, I cannot explain it,” he replied. “I have faith in many things. I would not be able to walk the wire without faith. I carry my life across the wire.”
Impossibilities, he added, are small challenges glued together.
“If you start dealing with one chunk you will slowly achieve the impossible,” he said.
When he first saw the World Trade Center twin towers, then under construction, he thought it would be impossible to gain access to the high-wire walk. “So let’s do it,” he thought back then.
He came from France to New York eight months before carrying out what many call the “artistic crime of the century.” He spent that time planning and juggling on the street and passing the hat to raise money.
Friends also wrote checks. And several friends in France and from the United States, as well as one from Australia, were enablers, helping Petit gain access to the roofs of the twin towers before he committed his astonishing deed. Altogether it cost him a "few thousand" dollars, he said.
Someone asked how he felt on Sept. 11, 2001, when the twin towers came down as the result of a terrorist attack. He was at his home in the Catskills in New York state at the time and had no TV or papers.
A friend called and said, “Philippe, your towers are being destroyed.”
“I looked at the sky and it was blue and I knew it was not an accident,” he said.
He said he was “horrified.”
Petit said some people are scared to see "Man on Wire" because it's about the twin towers. But Petit said the documentary takes viewers back to the "life of the towers.”
“It gives them some kind of hope. I love to see the film again because in it the two towers are in the present. They grow up, and I marry them.”
Someone asked where Petit focuses his eyes when he does a high-wire walk. He said the safest thing to do is look at his feet. He some times looks at the horizon, or to the place where the wire attaches to his destination.
“Looking down is difficult when you’re on a wire,” he said.
While in the thin air between the twin towers he at one point sat and saluted. That’s when he looked down. “I photographed with my heart and my eye what I would never see again,” he said.
Another person at the Art asked Petit how many times he’s been arrested. “I stopped counting arrests after 500,” he replied, adding that most came for juggling and high-wire walks.
For the World Trade Center high-wire walk, police charged Petit with trespassing and disorderly conduct. Because he had become an overnight folk sensation, the courts dropped the charges in exchange for Petit entertaining a small group of kids in New York.
Someone asked how his life changed after his “Man on Wire” — the title comes from the New York police report — feat. His friends who helped went back to France, believing Petit had become a celebrity. Some no longer speak to him, he said.
He played down his celebrity, though. He said nothing has changed. He kept juggling on the street and passing the hat. He continues to see himself as a wire walker — he practices wire walking as well as juggling and magic acts three hours a day — and as a craftsman.
He said he could have earned millions on endorsements soon after the World Trade Center towers crossings in the clouds. But he turned down the offers.
Someone asked whether he took more risks after walking between the twin towers, which were the tallest buildings in the world at the time.
He said it was just one walk and that all of his high-wire walks are the same, in a way.
“Risk is something obscene in our life,” he said. “Life is so marvelous. Don’t take a chance with your life. Absolutely, we have to not fall asleep in life.”
Petit said we should take intellectual but not physical risks. Last week during a telephone interview he said that before every high-wire act he studies the environment and makes sure he will be safe.
Asked about what he finds inspiring, Petit replied elderly people who remain passionate about what they do, and young children who show individuality, tenacity, imagination and rebellion.
Petit said his next challenge will be his one-man show at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Oct. 2) at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. In “Breaking the Rules: An Evening with Philippe Petit,”, he will improvise, as he always does on stage. He will talk about his life, juggle, do magic and draw pictures.
Petit will make a third public appearance here: At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 4) at Krannert Center he will participate with maverick dance choreographer Elizabeth Streb in CultureTalk: A Conversation with Philippe Petit and Elizabeth Streb, moderated by Mike Ross and Tim Fox. That is free; no tickets are required.