Evan Handler’s Web site opens with the “Sex and the City” star walking a tightrope high above Manhattan, a fitting visual for the high-wire turn his own life took when he was diagnosed at age 24 with acute myeloid leukemia, a supposedly incurable form of cancer.
The Juilliard-trained native of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., had been on the same fast track to stardom as Tom Cruise and Sean Penn, having landed starring roles in the 1981 hit movie “Taps” and several Broadway plays while barely out of his teens.
In his biography, “It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive,” Handler relives the physical, emotional and financial battles he faced during four years of cancer treatments that culminated in a bone marrow transplant.
Handler came out of it laughing, if only at the absurdity of now having to live a life he’d already forsaken.
He regained his center by writing a solo theater piece, “Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors,” that focused as much on how his illness had stunted his love life as how it had sidetracked his career. He published a full-length book version in 1996.
Six years later, he reclaimed his stardom when he joined the cast of “Sex and the City” as divorce lawyer Harry Goldenblatt, the second husband to Kristin Davis’ character, Charlotte York.
Now 48, Handler lives in Los Angeles with his Italian-born wife and daughter, and co-stars with David Duchovny on the hit Showtime series “Californication.”
Bankrate: Few people besides you and Michael J. Fox know what it feels like to have a successful acting career cut short by sudden, catastrophic illness. To what degree did the precipitous drop in earning power play into your “comedy of terrors”?
Evan Handler: I’m guessing the number of people who’ve had their careers interrupted go way beyond Michael and myself — and certainly Michael had a lot farther to fall than I ever did. When I was first diagnosed in 1985, I was only 24 years old, but I was doing better than most my age. But I hadn’t amassed any kind of fortune. The greatest irony and difficulty for me was that, in order to get Social Security disability assistance to pull me through the years of medical treatments ahead, I had to jettison any money I’d managed to set aside. I had to purposely impoverish myself in order to qualify. It’s not an uncommon thing for people to be forced to do, and it’s profoundly dispiriting. The reverse irony was that, once I was well and earning again, I had to fight to get the Social Security Administration to stop sending checks.
Bankrate: How did your struggling years as a young actor compare to the bleak financial horizon you faced returning to work when you realized you weren’t going to die young after all? Were you good at managing what money you had, or did you require help from friends and family?
Handler: My family took action during the illness, first by investigating and applying for the Social Security disability assistance, and then by appealing to the New York theater community for help. A fund was set up, donations were solicited, benefits were held, and that money was used to help offset my living expenses during the illness and while I got back up on my feet. So my life became a community project. Other people’s money was put in my bank, just as their blood was pumped into my veins. But, yes, after five years of treatment, I was at a lower financial baseline than before I’d ever worked a day in my life. I was starting over from scratch, or slightly below scratch.
Bankrate: What’s the worst part of career interruptus for an actor?
Handler: Watching others thrive while you’re struggling can be painful, but I think for most people, career takes a pretty distant back seat in importance when you’re fighting for your life. Once I was back out on the street, I did pretty well in getting back in the game. Though I do still sometimes wonder what career opportunities I might have had, had I not had the interruptions I did. Then again, I also wonder which young actresses I might have gotten to sleep with, so not every loss is a financial one.
Bankrate: Despite a hefty body of stage work, you’re probably best known as Harry Goldenblatt from “Sex and the City.” What convinced you to take the role?
Handler: There really wasn’t any question about taking it. In fact, I fought hard to get it. I’d just moved to Santa Monica, Calif., after 26 straight years in Manhattan but flew myself back to New York to audition. Another actor was already close to being cast, but I managed to take it away, which meant moving right back to New York for another year. I saw it as a very rare opportunity to get onto a high-quality hit show, playing a character that was both comedic and romantic. I thought it would be worth whatever it took.
Bankrate: What parts of your life informed your portrayal of Harry?
Handler: Well, he’s supposed to be incredibly good in bed, so I applied all my knowledge and confidence in that area.
Bankrate: Was Harry an opportunity to try on marriage, an institution with which you wrestled for years in your own life?
Handler: My life was mirrored in the fictional Goldenblatt existence in several ways. I did struggle for years with relationships. My new book tells about my 27 breakups, which were spread over only 10 relationships. But I got married to a non-Jewish, non-American right around the time Charlotte married Harry, and my wife and I had a miraculously conceived baby daughter right around the time Charlotte and Harry did in the film.
Bankrate: You admit you tend to lose your grasp on money when love enters the picture. Has the way you handle your money changed over the years?
Handler: I’ve gotten a lot more conservative about how to handle money, as I’ve finally collected a little bit of it. I have no trouble spending it on things I enjoy, though my choices are probably still not as extravagant as others I see driving around L.A. But I’m not much of a high-stakes “investor.” I’m a preserver of principal. I hate to see it disappear more than I like to watch it grow.
Bankrate: The role of Charlie in “Californication,” a guy with a lot of unresolved baggage, seems written for you. What parts of Charlie do you still relate to, and what parts have you outgrown?
Handler: I very much appreciate the balance that Tom Kapinos, the creator of “Californication,” has struck in terms of Charlie’s seeming career and monetary success, his apparent sexual deprivation and his resulting inability to resist what might be ill-advised liaisons. I like how, in season one, he’s assertive about seeking the experiences he craves, and I like to think I’ve been a bit smoother in cultivating my own experiences. Now that I’m happily married, I like to think I’m more successfully immunized against some of the traps and pitfalls Charlie gets snared by in season two. But if you’ve ever thought life would be better if you were sleeping with a porn star, tune in to episode two!
Bankrate: Now that you’re a father, you seem to be looking at the cup as half-full rather than mostly empty. Do you think there is a place of peace and happiness for you, or, as an artist, will a part of you always be restless and dissatisfied?
Handler: My history with the “half-empty” vs. “half full” question is somewhat unusual in that I usually just experience the cup as being dirty. But that said, yes, I am a much more satisfied and gratitude-filled being than I have ever been before. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the highest-wattage smile as my default setting, but I’m very happy to be exactly where I am — and that is new and quite wonderful.