Philippe Petit: The 'Man On Wire' Thirty-five years after a young Frenchman walked across the sky between the Twin Towers, they are missing from the landscape — but not from our minds.

Philippe Petit: The 'Man On Wire'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up: After 40 years a new performance of Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks." But first, it's been 35 years since Philippe Petit walked across the New York skyline. The route that he traversed is a point in thin air now. The buildings which he walked between, of course, disappeared in clouds of smoke and fire.

But somehow the destruction of the Twin Towers has made the French high-wire walker and his death-defying feat more famous among a new generation. The film "Man on Wire," made from Philippe Petit's book, won the Oscar for Best Documentary this week. And that book, originally called "To Reach the Clouds," has now been reissued with the same title as the film, "Man on Wire."

Mr. Petit is still an artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Devine in New York, and he has walked on high wires all over the world. Philippe Petit joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. PHILIPPE PETIT (High Wire Walker): Thank you.

SIMON: And I got to say, making the coin disappear in your Oscar speech is just one of the niftiest things I've ever seen.

Mr. PETIT: Yes. I went and I met many magicians after that and they were very happy.

SIMON: I mean, that's a high wire act in and of itself, isn't it? To try one simple magic trick in front of an audience of, I don't know how many billions?

Mr. PETIT: Well, actually, to balance the Oscar on my chin was much more delicate.

SIMON: Oh, which you did right after making the coin disappear and reappear magically, I should say. No, did it reappear?

Mr. PETIT: No, no, no, no. It went directly and secretly back to where I took it from - my right pocket.

SIMON: Ah, all right.

Mr. PETIT: But that's a secret. Don't tell anyone.

SIMON: You have my word. It's just between you and me.

For the umpteenth time, can I ask: Why did you do this? Why did you walk between the towers?

Mr. PETIT: Well, I don't have an answer precisely to that question. But obviously, I was a young wire walker, self-taught, and I already wanted to, I don't know, conquer the world maybe. Therefore I needed a space to perform. And I looked with a lot of arrogance at the two highest buildings in the world, and that's how the adventure started.

SIMON: I wonder if I can get you to tell the story about when you were going through Customs in New York on your way to walk between the Twin Towers and...

Mr. PETIT: Oh. First time in my life that I arrive in the States, the Custom officer asked me to open my luggage and found a little pouch full of magic tricks. And instead of saying what's that, the officer starts taking a deck of cards, spreading it out and said take a card. And we spend 20 minutes showing each other magic tricks, because this man happened to be an amateur magician.

And behind us, you can imagine, we had a long line of angry people, you know. And the guy shouted, hey, Joe, can you take those people? Don't you see I'm busy here?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PETIT: So anyway, that was a great omen, you know?

SIMON: Could I get you to recall what that first step was like?

Mr. PETIT: That moment, the slow motion shifting of my weight from the position where I have one weight anchored on the building and one weight - one foot touching the cable to turn the page from pedestrian and to open the page to the life, short life as a bird, is of course for the wire walker a point of no return.

And for me it was stepping into the live moment of living my dream after six and a half years of dreaming my dream.

SIMON: This question - I apologize in advance for the fact that it's going to sound incredibly stupid, because I think I know the answer, and you're the guy who did it and you should know the answer - but what would've happened if you'd slipped?

Mr. PETIT: That's a very wrong question because it doesn't apply to me. I do not put myself in a state of question mark on the wire. Actually, the question mark, I transform it in an exclamation point. And again, when I say I'm writing in the sky, it's not a beautiful image, it's actually exactly what I'm doing. I have composed my text in my head and I'm just now writing. I force my body to follow my will. And I will never put myself in a state of risk or in a state of, I hope the wire's strong enough, I hope I have enough training to walk on that wire.

And at the same time when I am sharing with you this solidity, at the same time I am completely lying, because here I am in the most fragile state and the most fragile universe there is. But this combination of extreme - the solidity in my heart and in my body and the fragility of being a man on a wire - is actually the beauty of the miracle of wire walking. So let's not try to explain it further than that.

SIMON: You were later - after walking between the Twin Towers - asked to sign the beam on the rooftop of the South Tower.

Mr. PETIT: Yes, and it was a very beautiful moment. But then the workers, every year they paint those beams, and my signature was, of course, not visible. But one of the Port Authority public affair person saw my signature before and asked me to come this time. And now every year when the beams were painted, the painters were told not to paint over my signature.

SIMON: Well, I have to ask, Mr. Petit, is it hard to think about what happened to your signature and so many people with it?

Mr. PETIT: Yes, of course. But I think this beam must be sleeping somewhere with my signature still on it. But of course, the day when the towers crumbled, there was much more important matters than a beam with a signature on it. It was all those lives, human lives, that were taken away that day. So that's what, of course, we must remember.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. PETIT: But you can imagine what happened for me inside of my heart when I saw those Twin Towers disappear. They were alive inside of me, so...

SIMON: Forgive me for not knowing this, but when's the last time you walked a high wire?

Mr. PETIT: It was a few years ago over Broadway from a 16-story building across Broadway to another 16-story building. It was for the David Letterman show.

SIMON: I believe I remember that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And does there come a time when wire walkers, like other great athletes and artists, just decide that maybe they've painted their last canvas?

Mr. PETIT: Not for me. I mean, I am not an athlete at all. I am a poet who uses his body, so - and who, I don't know, who writes in the sky. Again, I use this image because it's a very true one for me. So I will stop walking in the sky when my body refuses to walk on the ground, I guess, and there is no age for that.

SIMON: May we ask, Mr. Petit, how old you are now?

Mr. PETIT: Yes, 60 - that's a lie again. I'll be 60 in a couple of months.

SIMON: You know, the United States may start sending missions again to the moon and may have a long-term plan to send a spaceship to Mars. Seems to me you could be onboard one of those ships and...

Mr. PETIT: You mean to give the first performance on a other planet? I would love that.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. PETIT: And it would be very good, because as after my performance on the moon, after performing a quintuple somersault on a wire, then I will be able - I will be much closer to my own planet. I will finally go home.

SIMON: And what planet is that or do you want to keep that...

Mr. PETIT: Oh, I am not allowed to reveal where I come from, but I come from a very distant planet.

SIMON: Oh, Mr. Petit, you've been just a great pleasure to speak with.

Mr. PETIT: Oh, thank you.

SIMON: I thank you so much. Philippe Petit, his book, "Man on Wire," has now been reissued. Of course a film by that name about Philippe Petit's walk between the Twin Towers won this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary.

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