Evan Handler almost died.
"It's important to work that information into any story I tell," he wrote in his memoir, "in the hope it might excuse whatever behavior I confess to later on. And after two bouts with leukemia, four brutal rounds of conventional chemotherapy, two bone marrow harvests, and a bone marrow transplant, I just can't seem to ever stop talking about the illness anyway. Did I mention it was twenty years ago?"
On Showtime's "Californication," Handler plays the unsavory best friend and agent to David Duchovny's wayward novelist. But Handler is the real-life writer, currently on a 25-city book tour to promote his second memoir, "It's Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive." (He'll appear at the Festival of Jewish Books at the Merage Jewish Community Center in Irvine tonight.)
But never mind all that. "Most of you know me as one of three things," he said at a recent tour stop in Houston. "The Jewish lawyer from 'Sex and the City,' the bald Jewish lawyer from 'Sex and the City,' or the bald, naked lawyer from 'Sex and the City.' "
Laughter spilled from the room full of ladies, and Handler smiled. He knew his audience and didn't seem to mind it, either; perhaps because after being told at 24 that he would probably die of leukemia, he is now glad just to be seen, to be known, to be 47 years old.
"Until 'Sex and the City' came along, that illness had defined not only my own identity, but my identity to just about anyone who's known or heard or read anything about me," he told the audience. "That's an interesting experience, to reemerge after disappearing."
So he wrote about it. About restarting his acting career and his love life, about his 27 breakups involving only 10 women, about therapy and antidepressants, about an abortion and about the sense of doom that has shaped his world to this very day.
"Every day I think I'm having a heart attack," he wrote. "Every time I cross a street I imagine an approaching car smashing into me, tearing me apart. Every time. Cancer. Every day. Aortic aneurysm. A steel beam from above, if I'm walking under one. Melanoma. Neuroblastoma. . . ."
There is a little light within the gloom, however.
One day Handler received a call from an ex-girlfriend in New York. She was a writer on "Sex and the City" who had "overheard a conversation between Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon, both of whom I'd known slightly over the years, in which they'd both agreed I would be a great choice for a new role being written into the show."
He hung up, excited. Then he saw the casting breakdown. "Harry Goldenblatt, the character who would be introduced as a love interest for the extremely particular Charlotte York, played by the ravishing Kristin Davis, was being described as 'boorish, overbearing and unattractive,' " he said.
He swallowed his pride and took on the role, playing a man who overly perspired, had a hairy back and who roamed in the buff -- things that repulsed Charlotte, but she grew to love him anyway. Around that time, Handler began dating Elisa Atti, an Italian chemist (who'd never seen the show), and they would marry in 2003 and have a daughter in 2007.
In order to "bring home the pancetta," as it's called in his household, Handler now stars in "Californication," in a role that's somewhat of an antidote to Harry Goldenblatt. His character, Charlie Runkle, is, among other things, unfaithful, an occasional drug user and involved in pornography.
"Some people really like it and think of it as sort of the evolution of our society," Handler said, "and some people may think it's the decline of Western civilization. . . . I think it's a great sex comedy that manages to be highbrow and lowbrow at the same time."
But "Sex and the City" still dominates the conversation at his readings. "Do you socialize with the girls?" one woman asked him in Houston. Another just wanted to thank him for his work on the show. And then there was the small brouhaha when one woman complained about the episode in which he sat naked on Charlotte's white upholstery, but then others came to his defense.
Handler seemed amused. When asked about fame after the reading, he said, "I'm able to experience it now as the sort of random nice happening that it is, that I happened to fit the bill. They gave me that job [as Harry], and so that shone a light on me. Had it happened at a much younger age, I'd have felt that it was my due because I was something special and I deserved it. I think this has allowed me to see how random it can be."
Gajewski writes about "Californication" at latimes.com/showtracker.