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How Wirewalker Philippe Petit Defies Death and Embraces Life at 73

The star of the Oscar documentary ‘Man on Wire’ tells AARP how he’s achieved balance and announces autobiography

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Philippe Petit
Photo by: Greg Khan

Philippe Petit walked between the tops of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center at age 24, a feat that inspired the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire and the 2015 Joseph Gordon-Levitt film The Walk. Now 73, he did his wire-walking act March 23 in the great hall of the Washington, DC, National Building Museum, 50 feet above its famous indoor fountain, triumphantly exclaiming, “Nothing is impossible!” The event, a benefit for the museum’s exhibition “Building Stories,” was cosponsored by AARP. Before his performance, Petit talked to AARP about what he’s learned at his age, and breaks the news of his forthcoming autobiography.

You used to bounce up and down on the wire, which you don’t do anymore — but isn’t it rather dangerous to walk on a wire at 73?

When I was young I did all kinds of crazy things. But after 55 years and probably 100 performances I can do what I want on the wire.

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So aging has an upside.

I don’t know aging, I don’t feel it. I think I’m getting younger every year. There are more possibilities. I have more creativity and imagination, and my art profits from a lifetime. Yes, I have limits, my body is not 18 years old, but when I was 18 I was a rebel and ambitious and trying to prove. Well, I’m still a rebel and ambitious, but I have nothing to prove. I am more in command. I edit, like a writer, I go to the essentials. I choose my words, I choose my movement, and I think my art is more powerful and rich at my age. I don’t see age as at all as a limitation. I don’t care about age. I will never use the word — uh, how do you say when you stop working?


Retire! Why do people retire?

Do you think there’s a metaphorical lesson in your art for people who have no intention of walking on wires? Is there a kind of balance that people must strike in life?

Balance is very useful in life, like bread and water. Balance should be taught in school. Balance enriches your mind and your body and your life, and I have little tips for you. When you put your socks on in the morning, don’t sit on the edge of the bed, that’s ridiculous. Stand up and put your socks [demonstrates putting sock on one foot while standing on the other]. If you face a corner, your balance is not great. But if you face a wall, you have a reference, and fix an imaginary point on the floor. Now you can put on your socks and you don’t wobble. You need some practice, of course. People say, “Oh wow, I do that in the morning and I feel good!”

We’re all on a tight-wire as we get older, and falling can be a dangerous thing.

Yes, yes, yes. Start your day in equilibrium. Don’t have your breakfast like this [slouches], stand up parallel, straight and then you are directing your body to start the day in balance, in equilibrium, and you’re gonna feel better. I look at fashion magazines, the models are slouching. It drives me crazy. Balance makes you stay younger in body and mind, and that’s my way of life.

After the World Trade Center [walk], when the police got through applauding you, and they had to arrest you, they sentenced you to perform for children, right?


Did you feel a certain affinity for children?

I love to do magic tricks for children. To stay young, I am constantly making jokes, making pranks. I cultivate the child in me.

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So it’s nice you inspired a book that got a Caldecott Medal, the highest honor for a children’s book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

It’s amazing, because I receive a new type of fan mail, kids 5, 6, 7 years old. As a child I escaped authority [by] climbing. At 4 I would climb kitchen counters; 6 I would climb a tree; 12 I would climb rocks. I needed a rope to rappel down. I learned all that by myself. And that rope I put it between two trees for fun. Then I became a wire walker.

spinner image highwire artist philippe petit
Philippe Petit
Photo by: Greg Khan

You ran away to your own circus. But after all these landmarks you’ve conquered, don’t you feel like Alexander the Great — sad that there’s no more to conquer?

Many people have said, now that you’ve done the World Trade Center, there is no next. It’s not true! After the World Trade Center, I did a performance in the stairway of the Paris Opera, 20 feet high. A month before I was playing a quarter-mile high in the sky. So no, I am not being limited by what I have done.

Do you have a regimen that helps you stay limber?

I usually practice three hours a day except one day of the week. Half warming up, juggling, preparing my body, and half on the high-wire. I live close to Woodstock, New York, and I have three wires outside. In winter, I have a barn I built myself with the tools and methods of the 18th century. Because I am a madman.

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You built your barn without modern tools?

Yeah, all by myself with no electric tools, basically tenon and mortise. With the tools of 4,000 years ago, the people who built the pyramids, they had the mallet and the chisel and the square. And I find the simplicity and purity of that was really important to me. So I built the barn, I wrote a book about the building of the barn. I wrote 10 books.

What do you have coming up?

OK, so I’m going to let you in on a big secret. I am writing my autobiography. I never really looked at myself in a philosophical way. It was an adventure and a challenge. I am being very honest in trying to understand myself.

Did you get insight into how you conquered fear?

I never wanted to talk about that. After a lifetime of not answering the question, I think it’s time for me. So here comes an entire chapter about risk and danger. I am tackling some subjects, even personal subjects, that for some reason or another I never wanted to talk about before.

What’s the book called?

Cheating the Impossible: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Philippe Petit. Because the story of my life is, I never obey the rules, you know?

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