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Evan Handler: In spite of being doomed, we might as well have a few laughs

By Andrea Waxman
of The Chronicle staff

October 29th, 2008

Actor Evan Handler says that he “essentially has lived life backwards.” Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at age 24, he “was reduced to the state of a dying old man, from which he emerged at around age 30 “to try to live his 20s in his 30s,” he said in a recent telephone interview.

Evan Handler

Evan Handler

Now 47, Handler has struggled to “climb out of the misery” his illness threw him into and rebuild his delayed acting career.

Among other things, he is traveling to 25 U.S. cities including Milwaukee, on a tour to promote his second book, “It’s Just Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive” (Riverhead Books, 2008, hardcover, $24.95).

Handler will be featured at the Jewish Book & Culture Fair on Monday, Nov. 10, at 7:00 p.m. at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.

Happily married for five years, and the father of a 21-month-old daughter, Handler is currently living in Los Angeles and working as a television actor.

After appearing as a series regular in the role of Harry Goldenblatt, Charlotte’s (Kristin Davis) divorce lawyer-turned love interest in HBO’s “Sex and the City,” Handler is now co-starring with David Duchovny in Showtime television’s adult sex comedy “Californication,” for the second season.

Like his first book “Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors,” published in 1996 about his experience of being a leukemia patient, “It’s Just Temporary” is a collection of autobiographical essays told with humor and a great deal of candor.

“Aware that many other leukemia patients actually lost their lives and people lost loved ones,” Handler realizes he is very lucky. And in his first book, he said, “I used to refer to myself as being ‘among the luckiest of the unluckiest people to have ever lived.’”

In his new book, however, he recounts his journey to becoming someone who feels “like a lucky guy without the qualification.”

In 19 loosely connected, chronological essays, Handler tells his story with a focus on relationships, particularly romantic ones. Beginning his acting career at 17 and then getting sick at 24, Handler sees his delayed maturity, especially concerning his relationships with women, as related to his struggle with cancer.

In “It’s Only Temporary” he tells of 10 relationships and 27 break-ups — all with those 10 women — which he sees as “symptoms of what I emerged with [from his illness]: a real lack of knowledge of how to live life, of whether I needed to grab everything I could when I could or whether the future was something that could be trusted and invested in.”

But, in his book and his life “the ultimate redemption comes through meeting the woman who becomes my wife” and falling in love with life as a result of falling in love with her, he said.

Universal language

Handler grew up the youngest of three children in a secular Jewish family in the Hudson Valley area, about an hour north of New York City. Though his family celebrated Chanukah and Passover, he said he has an aversion to established religion.

“I don’t personally get a sense of pleasure from belonging to any particular club when there are so many contradictory clubs, each of whom seems to require that all the other clubs are mistaken in order for theirs to be correct. I prefer to form my own private spirituality, however I choose,” he said.

Describing his answer to all of the existential and spiritual questions people have asked him from an early age, because of his experience of nearly dying, Handler says he takes an adamant “I don’t know” position.

When faced with an existential challenge, he said, “People expect people to latch onto a religion and a belief in God.”

But he felt it was important to “trumpet as loudly as possible that that’s not absolutely necessary — that you can scratch and claw your way through it without deciding God intends you to survive. I had no notion that God wanted me to survive or not and no notion that I would survive and whether God would play any part in it or not.”

But Handler did grow up in a family that used and appreciated humor, which he refers to as a universal language. And humor is a major part of his work and his outlook.

“It started simply because I had such a difficult, grim story to tell about an illness that no one really wanted to hear much about and humor was the way that I drew people in.

“And when I read pieces that became [the book] ‘Time of Fire,’ without having any idea how people would respond, I found I got exactly the response I wanted, which was to get people laughing at things that were horrible, then to suddenly realize what they were laughing at and stop and then to get seduced into laughing all over again.”

And humor, Handler pointed out, “is a way that you can wield a sharp sword and get away with it sometimes. It’s a way to deliver criticism and aggression [that’s] a lot more acceptable than simply straight-on criticism.”

Handler will speak at the JCC’s Daniel M. Soref Community Hall. Cost is $36 for the event and book. Attendees who already own the book will receive a gift certificate to Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops.

The Jewish Book and Culture Fair’s Art Expo Boutique will be open from 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., prior to Handler’s talk.

The fair is a program of the JCC in partnership with Schwartz Bookshops and in association with the Jewish Book Council. Handler’s appearance is co-sponsored by Time Warner Cable of Wisconsin.