Johnny Carson labeled him Mr. Warmth, Frank Sinatra called him Bullethead and Milton Berle dubbed him the Merchant of Venom. Needless to say, comedian Don Rickles' reputation precedes him.

When Rickles takes the stage Saturday at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury, the orchestra will play a matador theme because he's always ready for battle.

Calling from his California home, he's still playfully feisty at age 89. But greeting him as "sir" is apparently not the way to begin a conversation.

"Don't call me sir . . . it's King of the Admirals!" instructs Rickles. "I'm sure this interview is going to really help my career at this stage of life."

And so we begin.

Are you excited to return to New York soil?

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I've been playing Westbury for a hundred million years. Growing up in Jackson Heights, Westbury was always like a second home. I enjoy coming back every time.

You once played Westbury with the late Joan Rivers. What was your relationship like?

She was a wonderful lady and a friend. We had some fun times together socially. I always respected her and it was a joy to have her on the bill with me.

How did the way you interact with the crowd develop?

I worked joints all over the East -- New Jersey, the Bronx and Long Island. I did impressions, told lousy jokes and suddenly I found myself talking and kidding about people in the audience. It wasn't mean-spirited, otherwise I would have never had success. I don't get on the stage and say, "Two Jews got off a bus . . . " I talk about things and it becomes a joke.

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You used to run around the stage like a wild man. How do you connect with the audience these days?

I had an infection in my leg, so I use a cane and sit on a chair in front of the band. Once you have the humor, it's always there even without the movement that I used to have.

How do you reach the people then?

I go into the audience, take their wallet, slap them in the face and go home. You got to snap out of it, David!

Can you give me a peek inside your formula?

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When I get to the theater, some people strike me and others don't. I have a feeling of who I can have a good time with and who I won't bother too much. It's an instinct. I say things with love and the public buys it. It never comes out nasty.

You celebrated your 50th wedding anniversary this year. What's the secret to your marital success?

I give my wife money! But you have to be a good friend and count on each other. We have a great life together.

You are best friends with Bob Newhart. How do you guys connect?

We are two different people, but our wives are the dearest of friends, they are like sisters. Bob's a brilliant comedian from the Midwest and I'm a loud Jew from New York.

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Your relationship with Frank Sinatra was legendary, yet you were different as well. How did you bond?

I told him he was a good singer and he bought that. Frank and his wife Barbara treated me and my wife, Barbara, tremendously. He enjoyed my style of humor.

How would you describe the chemistry between you and Johnny Carson?

We just clicked. Our humor together always worked terrific. Every time I was on "The Tonight Show," it was an event. Johnny always had notes, but we never used them because we'd just make up stuff as we went along. He was one in a million.

Were you surprised that David Letterman is retiring?

No, it's about time! He should walk away because he's starting to bore me. But, Dave's been a good friend.

Did you have a good sense of humor as a kid?

Yes, but I lost a little bit during World War II in the Navy. The gunfire annoyed me.

You are an inspiration to many comedians, but who inspired you?

When I started out it was Milton Berle. I always loved his ad-libbing and the way he acted.

What did your mother think of your career?

My mother was strong lady, very wise and helpful. She always gave me the courage to do what I do. When I was trying to make a mark for myself, she'd say, "Why can't you be more like Alan King? Why do you have to pick on people?" Then, when I started to make money and get attention, she'd say, "That's so good what you do!"

How do you get pumped up before a show?

It's a little thing called . . . VODKA! After almost 60 years, I just wait in the wings, get myself revved up in the head and go out and do it. When you get to be my age and they still show up and laugh, it's kind of nice.

How did playing Mr. Potato Head in the "Toy Story" films affect your career?

Younger people have discovered me because of that character. I hope to do another one, if I'm still alive.

You appeared on "Gilligan's Island," "The Munsters," "The Addams Family," "Get Smart," "The Andy Griffith Show" and "I Dream of Jeannie." Which was the most enjoyable?

The most fun was doing "Get Smart" with Don Adams, who was a dear friend of mine.

Where did the term "hockey puck" come from?

It was just my go-to ad-lib. Now people send me actual hockey pucks at home.

 

DON RICKLES

 

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, NYCB Theatre at Westbury, 960 Brush Hollow Road

INFO $69.50-$99.50, 800-745-3000, livenation.com