Petit was born in Nemours, Seine-et-Marne, France; his father Edmond Petit was an author and an Army pilot. At an early age, Petit discovered magic and juggling. He loved to climb, and at 16, he took his first steps on a tightrope wire. He told a reporter,
Within one year, I taught myself to do all the things you could do on a wire. I learned the backward somersault, the front somersault, the unicycle, the bicycle, the chair on the wire, jumping through hoops. But I thought, “What is the big deal here? It looks almost ugly.” So I started to discard those tricks and to reinvent my art
Philippe Petit ( born 13 August 1949) is a French high-wire artist who gained fame for his high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, on the morning of August 7, 1974 as well as his high wire walk between the towers of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, 1971. For his unauthorized feat 400 metres (1,000 feet) above the ground – which he referred to as “le coup” – he rigged a 200-kilogram (440-pound) cable and used a custom-made 8-metre (30-foot) long, 25-kilogram (55-pound) balancing pole. He performed for 45 minutes, making eight passes along the wire. The following week, he celebrated his 25th birthday. All charges were dismissed in exchange for him doing a performance in Central Park for children.
Since then, Petit has lived in New York, where he has been artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, also a location of other aerial performances. He has done wire walking as part of official celebrations in New York, across the United States, and in France and other countries, as well as teaching workshops on the art. In 2008, Man on Wire, a documentary directed by James Marshabout Petit’s walk between the towers, won numerous awards. He was also the subject of a children’s book and an animated adaptation of it, released in 2005. The Walk, a movie based on Petit’s walk, was released in September 2015, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit and directed by Robert Zemeckis.
He also became adept at equestrianism, juggling, fencing, carpentry, rock-climbing, and bullfighting. Spurning circuses and their formulaic performances, he created his street persona on the sidewalks of Paris. In the early 1970s, he visited New York City, where he frequently juggled and worked on a slackline in Washington Square Park.