LAS VEGAS -- Brian Dewhurst always knew he would be a circus act.

The English performer was born into a family of knife throwers, jugglers and animal trainers. He made his professional debut on the European circus circuit at 13, with a boyhood education comprised of lessons in juggling, acrobatics, stilt walking and dancing on a tightrope. As an adult, he started his own circus troupe and entertained his two children by trimming the hedges while on stilts.

For Dewhurst, the only unexpected thing about his life's devotion is that people are surprised he is still doing it. The celebrated acrobat and clown is the oldest performer employed by Cirque du Soleil, the upscale Canadian circus with 22 shows across the globe. Last week Dewhurst marked his 80th birthday as he would any other work day – by starring in two back-to-back performances of "Mystere," a psychedelic exploration of the passage of time at the Treasure Island hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

"My father worked into his late 80s, so I don't think this is anything unusual," Dewhurst told The Associated Press as he prepared for his first performance on his birthday. "It's just another day."

Of course, it wasn't, and his cast mates and relatives were not about to let Dewhurst forget it.

He began the night by teasing out his fine, gray hair into the loony halo that has become the calling card of Brian Le Petit, the rude clown Dewhurst portrays in "Mystere." He coated his bushy, white eyebrows with a black makeup pencil and lined his eyes to make them stand out on stage. He wore his customary costume of an oversized black suit and white shirt, with a red foam clown nose tucked away for later.

The birthday surprises began shortly after Dewhurst entered the theater.

As Le Petit, his job is to warm the crowd up by irritating them until they laugh. On his birthday, he threw popcorn at men, begged young women for kisses and pretended to pull a bra from beneath the shirt of a large middle-aged woman. As he always does, he posed as an usher and then led confused tourists across the theater, onto the stage and back to the entrance before ripping up their tickets and tossing the paper scraps into the air like confetti.

When the show starts, Le Petit mocks the puppeteer who advises theatergoers to turn off their phones and cameras.

"Hey," Dewhurst yells. "We can see your lips moving."

As Dewhurst stared at the stage last week, he realized he was yelling at his only son, Nicky Dewhurst, a fellow performer who had arranged to share the stage with his father for the special night. His regular gig is a clown/sex toy salesman at Cirque Du Soleil's "Zumanity" down the Strip at the New York-New York hotel-casino.

As the cast closed the performance with a bow, they led the audience in "Happy Birthday to You" as Dewhurst looked on.

Later dozens of cast mates and relatives, including his six grandchildren, surprised Dewhurst with a party in the empty theater.

It was a celebration Dewhurst had avoided for decades. He said he never did much to observe the usual milestone birthdays, not his 30th or his 40th or his 50th, either.

All he ever did, he said, was work.

Old family photos show Dewhurst walking with his hands on a tightrope, his body above him in a head stand position. His hair was dark then.

After performing for years with his parents and sister, Dewhurst launched his own circus troupe with his children. The show caught Cirque's eye and the Dewhurst family was invited to hold workshops on their craft. They later joined the company.

Dewhurst served as the artistic director of "Mystere" when it opened in 1993 in Las Vegas. The show follows a babbling baby as it encounters contortionists, dancers, clowns and acrobats. Musicians pound Japanese drums and a giant, colorful snail named Alice slides across the stage.

After two years, Dewhurst longed to return to the spotlight. He became Le Petit and was given his own segment within the show, during which he makes advances at a young lady in the crowd and pretends to fatally shoot a dancing bird. At one point, he partially unbuttons his shirt and tweaks his nipples mid-dance. At each performance the audience erupts with laughter whenever Dewhurst enters the theater.

"He's kind of that crazy uncle at a wedding who is always running around bothering people," the show's artistic director David Gomez said of the character Dewhurst portrays.

Dewhurst's family said he won't give up the spotlight.

"He lives for this," said daughter Sally Dewhurst, 37.

With 10 performances each week, Dewhurst's craft is demanding. He said he stays fit with regular exercise and eating well. His body is trim and he looks younger than his 80 years.

Aging has forced him to slow down somewhat. He no longer walks the tightrope.

CLICK through photos of Brian Dewhurst, the Cirque Du Soleil's oldest clown:
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  • Brian Dewhurst

  • Brian Dewhurst

    In this 1974 photo, Brian Dewhurst performs as the clown Brian Andro with the Circus Krone in Munich, Germany. After playing a clown for the last 60 years in various acts around the globe, Dewhurst, now 80 years old, performs as clown Brian Le Petit in Cirque du Soleil's Mystere in Las Vegas and is the upscale circus' oldest performer. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Nicky Dewhurst)

  • Brian Dewhurst, Julie Dey Dewhurst

    In a 1966 photo, Brian Dewhurst is seen with his wife Julie Dey Dewhurst at the Hansa Theatre in Hamburg, Germany. After playing a clown for the last 60 years in various acts around the globe, Dewhurst, now 80 years old, performs as clown Brian Le Petit in Cirque du Soleil's Mystere in Las Vegas and is the upscale circus' oldest performer. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Nicky Dewhurst)

  • Nicky Dewhurst

    Nicky Dewhurst waits for a queue to go back onstage while making an impromptu performance at Cirque du Soleil's Mystere, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, in Las Vegas. Normally a performer at another Cirque show down The Strip, Nicky was performing at Mystere that night to surprise his father, Brian Dewhurst, who performs as a clown and was celebrating his 80th birthday that evening. Brian Dewhurst is the upscale circus' oldest performer. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Brian Dewhurst

    Brian Dewhurst, center, steals the date of a member of the audience while performing as the clown Brian Le Petit in Cirque du Soleil's Mystere, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, at Treasure Island hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Performing as a clown over the last 60 years, Dewhurst celebrated his 80th birthday that night and is the oldest performer employed by the upscale circus. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Brian Dewhurst

    Brian Dewhurst begs for a kiss from a member of the audience while performing as the clown Brian Le Petit in Cirque du Soleil's Mystere, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, at Treasure Island hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Performing as a clown over the last 60 years, Dewhurst celebrated his 80th birthday that night and is the oldest performer employed by the upscale circus. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Brian Dewhurst, Nicky Dewhurst

    Brian Dewhurst, right, performs with his son Nicky Dewhurst in Cirque du Soleil's Mystere, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, at Treasure Island hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Performing as a clown over the last 60 years, Dewhurst celebrated his 80th birthday that night and is the oldest performer employed by the upscale circus. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Brian Dewhurst

    Brian Dewhurst, center, gets a standing ovation after performing as Brian Le Petit in one of two nightly Cirque du Soleil shows of Mystere, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, at Treasure Island hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Performing as a clown over the last 60 years, Dewhurst celebrated his 80th birthday that night and is the oldest performer employed by the upscale circus. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Brian Dewhurst, Eddie Hawkins

    Brian Dewhurst is greeted by long-time friend Eddie Hawkins, who flew in from Europe, during a surprise birthday celebration after performing in Cirque du Soleil's Mystere, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, in Las Vegas. At 80 years of age, Dewhurst has been performing as a clown for the last 60 years and is the upscale circus' oldest performer. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Brian Dewhurst

    Brian Dewhurst, right, reacts as he walks out onstage and into a surprise birthday celebration after performing as the clown Brian Le Petit in Cirque du Soleil's Mystere, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, at Treasure Island hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Performing as a clown over the last 60 years, Dewhurst celebrated his 80th birthday that night and is the oldest performer employed by the upscale circus. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Brian Dewhurst

    Cirque du Soleil performer Brian Dewhurst walks through the green room backstage before preparing for his role as the clown Brian Le Petit in Cirque's Mystere at Treasure Island hotel-casino, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, in Las Vegas. At 80 years of age, Dewhurst is the upscale circus' oldest performer. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Brian Dewhurst

    Brian Dewhurst performs as Brian Le Petit during one of two nightly showings of Mystere, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, at Treasure Island hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Performing as a clown over the last 60 years, Dewhurst celebrated his 80th birthday that night and is the oldest performer employed by the upscale circus. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Brian Dewhurst, Nicky Dewhurst

    Cirque du Soleil clown Brian Dewhurst, right, greets his son Nicky Dewhurst in an elevator backstage during one of two nightly Mystere shows, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, at Treasure Island hotel-Casino in Las Vegas. Normally performing in another Cirque show, "Zumanity" on The Strip, Nicky surprised his father, who was celebrating his 80th birthday that day, by appearing and performing onstage with him. After 60 years of performing as a clown, Brian Dewhurst is Cirque du Soleil's oldest performer. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Brian Dewhurst, Gera Wade

    Cirque du Soleil clown Brian Dewhurst, left, waits backstage for his queue with carpenter Gera Wade, center, and an unidentified performer during the first of two nightly shows, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, at Treasure Island hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Performing as a clown over the last 60 years, Dewhurst celebrated his 80th birthday that night and is the oldest performer employed by the upscale circus. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

  • Brian Dewhurst

    Brian Dewhurst puffs up his hair and applies some light make-up while preparing for one of two nightly performances as Brian Le Petit in Cirque Du Soleil's Mystere, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, at Treasure Island hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Performing as a clown over the last 60 years, Dewhurst celebrated his 80th birthday that night and is the oldest performer employed by Cirque du Soleil. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)