City Slicker

updated 08/11/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Evan Handler was on a Manhattan subway train recently when, he says, "a pack of 15-year-old girls from London came over to me, yelling, 'Sex and the City! Sex and the City! How come nobody on the train is paying attention to you? You're huge in London. You're huge!'"

Unfortunately for Handler—who plays Harry Goldenblatt, the divorce lawyer turned fiancé of Sex's Charlotte (Kristin Davis)—the attention is not always so flattering on this side of the pond. The actor, 42, points to a recent New York Daily News poll of 15 single, female fans of the HBO series. "They all said they would never sleep with me," the actor laments, then jokingly turns to his real-life fiancée, Elisa Atti, 33, an Italian-born medical researcher, to vouch for the fact that, unlike Harry, "I'm not pudgy or chubby or non-handsome!"

Atti readily agrees but does point out one striking similarity: "Harry is very sweet, very tender and loving. So they have that in common."

What they don't share is Harry's hairy back, so prominently exposed in his bedroom scenes with Charlotte. "It's not real, thank goodness!" says Davis. "Poor Evan. That is one of the things about coming on the show as a man: You're either going to have some problems or there's gonna be some jokes made about you." But Handler needn't worry, adds Davis: "I don't think that looks are as important to women as men think they are. Women fall in love with the man."

As Atti can attest. She and Handler met last year at a party. Nine months later he proposed. In June Atti moved into his one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and in October the couple will wed at a favorite neighborhood restaurant. "I went from the biggest cynic to the biggest convert of 'When it's right, you just know it's right,'" says Handler. "It's just been incredibly easy. With the emphasis on easy, 'cause that's what my relationships never were."

Nor, for that matter, was his life. The youngest of three children of Murry, an ad-agency owner, and Enid, a mental-health administrator, Handler grew up stagestruck in a New York City suburb. The Juilliard dropout was just 24 and starring on Broadway in Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 1985. "It was bad enough that it was considered to be incurable," he says. "But I also just found the whole attitude of the world of medical care and treatment I wound up in to be brutal and abusive and arrogant."

After several remissions and recurrences, he underwent a bone-marrow transplant in 1988. A year later Handler was declared cancer-free. Still haunted by his ordeal, though, he toured the country in a one-man show, then wrote an acclaimed 1996 memoir, Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors.

Since then he has refocused on his acting career. It's Like, You Know..., a 1999 sitcom set in L.A., was short-lived, but Handler's madcap turn as Larry Fine in a 2000 TV-movie bio of the Three Stooges led to a string of guest shots on The West Wing, Six Feet Under and other shows. Last year he was tapped to play Harry on Sex and the City. The culture clashes between Harry and Charlotte—even after she converted to his faith, Judaism—are not echoed by Evan and Elisa. "Oddly enough," he says, "for two people who have different faiths [Handler, a Jew, says neither he nor Atti, a Catholic, is observant] and completely different backgrounds, we have the most easy compatibility. Early on she said, 'You know, I'll probably want to spend part of every year in Italy' I was like, 'It'll be a struggle, but I can manage it.'" He laughs. In fact they'll be visiting Atti's family in September.

"I feel very, very lucky," she says.

"We argue," he adds, "over who's the luckiest."

Michael A. Upton
Mark Dagostino in New York City

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