The Walk’s Czech Connection

Rudy Omankowsky, played by Ben Kingsley, was World Trade Center tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s Czech mentor

In 1974, Philippe Petit became the most famous tightrope walker in the world when, without permission, he walked across a 61-meter steel cable strung between the two World Trade Center towers in New York City.  

That moment – along with the story behind it – was immortalized in James Marsh’s excellent documentary Man on Wire, and now the Hollywood dramatization The Walk, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit.

But Petit didn’t pull of the feat alone. Both films detail the teamwork that went into planning and executing the World Trade Center walk.

Among Petit’s team was Rudolf “Papa Rudy” Omankowsky, who Petit describes in his book Creativity: The Perfect Crime as “an extraordinary old circus veteran and wire-walker from Czechoslovakia” that would go on to become his mentor.

In Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, out today in Czech cinemas, Omankowsky is featured in a supporting role, played by Ben Kingsley.

“I asked for technical advice and rigging lessons,” Petit writes in Creativity, describing the beginning of their relationship as he first set out to become a tightrope walker.

“[Omankowsky] agreed… on condition that I buy each of the “high wire secrets” he imparted. I would purchase a knot, a way to connect the cable to an anchor, the knowledge of which type of wire-rope was needed for a given job. The sale of those secrets flourished for several months, until our flourishing friendship rendered such transactions obsolete.”

Omankowsky was the patriarch of a successful group of wire walkers who performed in France and throughout Europe. “Papa Rudy,” wife Anna Tříska, and their children, Rudy Jr., Berty, and Lili were known as Le Diables Blancs (“The White Devils”).

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In 1954, the troupe made headlines when daughter Berty married Roger Decugis in ceremony conducted on high wires above the streets of Toulouse, France. This photo of the event, by Georges Railland, was featured in Life magazine. 

(That’s Papa Rudy in the back, carrying photographer Jean Dieuzaide on top of his shoulders while walking the wire.)

More footage from the ceremony can be seen in this archive video from British Pathé:

Rudy Jr. also became an accomplished tightrope walker; he earned the title of “world champion” when he crossed a 250m wire across Lake Gerardmer blindfolded, a feat this Telegraph article ascribes to his father.

You can see The Walk in Czech cinemas from today, October 8.

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