If life is a series of anecdotes strung together into a narrative, Evan Handler’s character-defining moments read like scenes from the two shows that have made him famous.
His opening line to Elisa Atti, the Italian scientist to whom he’s been married for nine years, could no doubt have been turned into an arc on Californication, where a relatively innocent compliment like “Fantastic stockings” would have soared to new levels of ambiguity (she was wearing fishnet tights, after all…). Or the way in which his first proper date with said Italian lady, strolling through Central Park, sealed the deal for him (and a B-story line where, in actuality, he had flown from California to New York to meet with another woman that weekend) is what Sex and the City was made of.
But though the New Yorker has had a life full of Charlie Runkle-like dating faux pas and relationship miracles that would put Charlotte York and Harry Goldenblatt to shame, it’s a darker twist in the actor’s story that permeates the last 27 years of his life.
At 24, after experiencing persistent flu-like symptoms, Handler was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a rare and deadly cancer. “It didn’t take long to learn that the odds were that I was going to die, almost certainly quite soon,” says Handler. “What people tried to stress at the time was that it was treatable, not curable. Which, if you translate, means: ‘We can extend a person’s life, but not for very long.’ It was sort of a one in 10 proposition.”
As he chuckles about pitching a movie called 90/10 à la Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 50/50, it’s hard to wrap your head around the gravity of the situation because Handler is now healthy, a successful actor and author, married to his true love, and the father of a 6-year-old daughter. But hearing him talk about the emotional repercussions of his illness truly cuts through the “inspirational” BS usually associated with surviving the disease.
“Being as angry as I was, I was a big proponent of trying to make people understand how one could be very grateful for escaping a situation, yet still feel very angry about it. “My second book (It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive) tells the story of finding some kind of peace and even finding a wife and having a child. I don’t know if I could have or should have married any earlier. But I’m sure that the illness is part of what kept me single until I was 43.”
The real question is what would have happened without what he calls his “elaborate, stunted, and perverse dating history”? Spend some time with Handler talking about his past relationships and it becomes obvious why he was drawn to Californication, which this spring enters its sixth season. “I think it has a handle on the antagonism between the sexes,” he says. “The way admiration, desire, anger, and resentment are all mixed—I hadn’t seen it done quite so accurately before.” The gig has taken up nearly six years of his life, but the actor says it remains his favorite. “Look, I’ve had experiences that have been delightful and experiences that have been just awful,” he says. “Television jobs, especially, can be fraught with hierarchical tensions, and those just haven’t existed here. That’s just extremely rare.” Unless you’re Evan Handler, and lightning just keeps striking.