The 2015 movie The Walk hit the screens with a lot of hype. Trailers seemed intriguing enough but then when we realised it was based on a true story, we knew we had to watch it. The Walk was a film about achieving the impossible, tightrope walking between the twin towers, and knowing that one man actually managed it made this the documentary movie of the year.
But of course, most documentary movies are dramatized at least a little bit for effect, so many who watched this movie have since found themselves wondering what the actual facts of the story are. So here’s the true story of Philippe Petit – perhaps the world’s most famous tightrope walker.
Like in the movie, Philippe learnt street magic and juggling when he was young, 6 years old in fact, and from there progressed to tightrope walking in his teenage years.
The movie features a dramatic fall during a street performance though, and this is something that never actually happened in real life. Philippe has said in his autobiography that he has never fallen during a performance, but has of course experienced the odd fall during rehearsals.
One particularly bad fall he had whilst rehearsing for the Ringling Brothers’ Greatest Show On Earth led to a few broken ribs and internal injuries. But of course this is to be expected during practice, and experience of failure was perhaps what gave him the bravery to succeed in his biggest endeavour – the walk between the Twin Towers.
The idea of ‘the coup’ – the nickname Philippe gave to his plan to walk between the Twin Towers, came to him whilst in a dentist’s waiting room. Just like in The Walk, Philippe saw a picture of the Twin Towers in a magazine, and sneakily tore it out, hiding it under his coat as he left.
Preparations took longer than the movie implied, as the day he tore the picture from the magazine, he was only 17, and ‘the coup’ wasn’t carried out until he was 25.
In between the day he first became determined to walk the Twin Towers, and the day he succeeded, Philippe carried out several other smaller, but still magnificent walks. In 1971 he walked between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral. In 1973 he tight rope walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Both were huge stunts, but where of course outdone by his 1974 tight rope walk at 411 meters between the Twin Towers.
Aside from carrying out other walks, he prepared for ‘the coup’ more specifically by creating a scale model of the Twin Towers, so that he could accurately plan and design the rigging. He also made several trips to New York, contrary to what the movie would have us believe, to study the Towers and create a plan. His planning even went as far as to include a helicopter, to take photos from above.
Philippe, and his accomplices, entered the Twin Towers using the ID of someone who worked there, and by making additional fake IDs. They then disguised themselves as contractors, hired to do work on the rooftop. One of his accomplices, Barry Greenhouse, worked in the Twin Towers, a factor that played a huge part in the success of the execution of ‘the coup’.
The first attempt failed though, and plans were put in place for a second attempt to go ahead. Philippe’s girlfriend, Annie Allix hadn’t been there for the first attempt, hesitant about how far Philippe was taking his daredevil stunts, but she flew to New York for the second attempt.
There were still challenges in the second attempt of course though. Philippe and one of his accomplices had to hide from a security guard in order to keep their whole operation from being shut down.
Like in the film, they used a bow and arrow to get the wire across to the other side. This is something that people often expect is a dramatization, but it happened and it worked.
Once in the air, Philippe’s success was just as entertaining, if not more so than the movie presented it. He spent 45 minutes on the tight rope wire, and did just as many tricks as the film showed us. He danced, taunted police officers, lied down, and walked backwards and forwards repeatedly. He only came down from the wire when he felt the wind was going to change, which would have meant conditions too dangerous to continue.
He was then arrested, and psychologically evaluated, an outcome that he and his accomplices had expected and were accepting of. There are photos of Philippe walking willingly with the police offers as he was escorted away from the Twin Towers. He was later released though, and has since lived a life of fame.