Famed for her roles in An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment and Shadowlands, Debra Winger was among the most popular and best-paid actresses of the 80s and early 90s.
Her charisma and determination won her both audience’s hearts and some enemies among the Hollywood stars – but a lengthy hiatus from acting transformed her into an environmental activist and Harvard University teacher. Today, she stars in the comedy Netflix series The Ranch.
Here are some things you probably didn’t know about Debra Winger.
30. She became an actress after a truck accident temporarily blinded her
Winger loved acting as a teenager, but she was secretive about it, and never seriously considered it as a career.
Winger decided against drama school and began studying Criminology at California State University, Northridge after finishing high school.
One day, at her part-time job in an amusement park, Winger fell from a truck and ended up with a serious head injury, temporarily losing her sight.
Winger suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and was bedbound for months. Doctors told her that there was a chance she would be paralysed and/or blinded forever.
While in hospital, Winger resolved to pursue her dream job of acting if she ever made a full recovery.
Thankfully, she did. Winger went on to bag her first role in the 1976 film Slumber Party ’57.
29. She was the original voice of E.T.
Winger’s close friend Steven Spielberg asked her to provide the voice of ET for the movie’s rough cut.
Winger’s voice has been described by People as “five pounds of walnuts being cracked underwater” – making her the perfect fit for the otherworldly ET.
In the final cut of the film, however, veteran actress Pat Welsh voices the friendly alien.
Welsh wasn’t the only voice used for ET – there were a grand total of 18 other contributors to ET’s snorts, wheezes and burps.
Winger was one of the 18, although she went uncredited as Welsh did the majority of the work.
Winger does also have a physical cameo in the movie – she’s the Nurse Zombie carrying a poodle in the trick or treat scene.
28. She hated working with Shirley MacLaine on Terms of Endearment
While love may have blossomed between Winger and politician Bob Kerrey on the set of Terms of Endearment, tension abound between the actress and her co-star Shirley MacLaine.
While Winger was more rebellious and outspoken, MacLaine was more conservative and quiet – leading to the two to spectacularly clash.
The cattiness between the two once got so bad that MacLaine reportedly walked off the set.
Both actresses received Academy Award nominations for their respective performances in the film – but MacLaine walked away with the Oscar.
In MacLaine’s acceptance speech she handed Winger a backhanded compliment, praising her “turbulent brilliance.”
She also added “I deserve this” at the end of her speech – which some have interpreted as another dig at Winger.
27. Michael Douglas claims Winger bit him at an audition gone wrong
When Michael Douglas was producing Romancing the Stone, he hoped to cast Winger opposite him as Joan, an adventurous romance novelist.
Douglas met with Winger in a Mexican restaurant to discuss the role, but the interview went awry.
According to Kathleen Turner, who eventually played Joan, Douglas claimed that Winger had sunk her teeth into him mid-meal – losing her the part.
Speaking to The New Yorker in 2008, Turner revealed the alleged reason behind Winger losing out on the role.
“[Douglas] originally intended to have Debra Winger in the role of Joan, but they didn’t seem to get along as well as he’d hoped.”
“They met to discuss it at a Mexican restaurant and she bit him, or so he said.”
26. She rejected the female lead in Fatal Attraction
Already a household name by 1987, Winger was among the top choices for the part of Alex Forrest, the scorned lover in Fatal Attraction.
The role of Forrest ultimately went to Glenn Close, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
Melanie Griffith, Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon were all also considered for the role.
Winger turned down the role so that she could star in the neo-noir film Black Widow instead.
Black Widow received mixed reviews and holds a distinctly average 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Fatal Attraction, meanwhile, received six Oscar nominations and grossed over $320 million.
25. She had to drop out of starring in Peggy Sue Got Married because of a back injury
Peggy Sue is one of Kathleen Turner’s most famous roles – but the film’s original director, Jonathan Demme, initially cast Debra Winger in the role.
Winger was one of Hollywood’s most popular rising stars in 1986 following her success in An Officer and a Gentleman.
Demme eventually dropped out of the project, but Winger stayed on board as the film’s leading lady.
Penny Marshall then took over the project, but the studio were reluctant to let a novice director take on such a large-scale movie.
Shortly after Marshall left, Winger began experiencing problems with her back. Winger was no stranger to back problems following a severe injury she sustained as a teenager.
Winger never returned to the film after taking time out to recover, leaving Francis Ford Coppola and Kathleen Turner to step in and take the project in a new direction.
24. She “slugged tequila” to prep for her role in Urban Cowboy
Winger’s breakthrough role came in 1980 with the neo-Western film Urban Cowboy, where she starred as waitress Sissy.
Winger didn’t have much previous acting experience, but she took a very hands-on approach when it came to getting into character.
Back in 1980, People claimed that Winger spent time “slugging tequila” at Gilley’s bar to prepare for the role.
Winger even spent time working out to build her biceps and get in shape for the role.
According to People, Winger also didn’t wear underwear with any of her costumes, as she felt Sissy wouldn’t.
She also reportedly stayed up all night in a night in a cemetery to prepare for the film’s funeral scene.
23. She called Officer and a Gentleman co-star Richard Gere a “brick wall”
Winger famously feuded with her co-star Richard Gere on the set of 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman.
Having publicly called the award-winning actor a “brick wall”, Winger also reportedly hated every minute of making the film largely due to the tension between herself and Gere.
It’s fair to say that Gere was also resentful of Winger’s success in the film.
Although Gere was the film’s lead and he earned a hefty salary, Winger stole every scene she was in and even landed an Oscar nomination for her performance.
30 years later, Winger presented Gere with an award at the Rome Film Festival where the pair were all smiles.
“Thank you for all your kindnesses over the years and for being a great human and citizen of the world,” she said before presenting him with the Marc Aurelio award for Lifetime Achievement.
22. She turned down the role of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Winger knows her own mind and has always been very particular about what roles she takes on – even if her decisions can seem arbitrary from an outside perspective.
Most notably, she turned down the chance to play Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The film was a huge success and won a whopping five Academy Awards, seven Saturn Awards, and one BAFTA award.
It also turned out to be the highest-grossing film of 1981, earning approximately $330.5 million.
The role of Marion ultimately went to Karen Allen, who went on to win a Saturn Award for Best Actress for her performance.
Allen went on to appear in other popular films such as Scrooged, Malcolm X, and The Perfect Storm.
21. The producers of An Officer and a Gentleman were “pigs” who made Winger take water pills
Following her star-making role in 1980’s Urban Cowboy, Winger played factory worker Paula Pokrifki in the romantic drama An Officer and a Gentleman.
She was awarded her first Oscar nomination for this movie – but it was not an easy journey.
In an interview with New York Magazine in 2002, Winger recalled, “People like [the film’s producer] Don Simpson – they were pigs.”
“I’m sorry, may he rest in peace, but he’d go to dailies and bring me a water pill.”
“They treated girls very badly. I was trying to stand up to it. And it was hard.”
Winger said she did “not have a great time” on the set of the movie due to the misogynistic attitudes of some of the men working on the film.
20. She went on a six-year acting hiatus after falling out of love with Hollywood
The early days of Winger’s career saw the talented actress go from strength to strength.
However, despite the fact that becoming an actress had been a childhood dream, Winger soon fell out of love with the vocation.
By 1995, she had decided that it was time to take a step back from appearing on the silver screen. She wouldn’t appear in another film for six years.
Speaking to New York Mag in 2002, Winger explained why she took time out from show business.
“I wanted out for years,” she explained. “I got sick of hearing myself say I wanted to quit.”
“It’s like opening an interview with ‘I hate interviews!’ Well, get out! I stopped reading scripts and stopped caring.”
19. She was lured back to show business when her husband promised to buy her a pet cow
Winger took a break from the limelight in 1995, a hiatus which ended up lasting until 2001.
Still, she was never far from the world of show business, as she is married to the actor and director Arliss Howard.
In 2000, Winger’s husband was set to direct Big Bad Love when he became determined Winger would be his leading lady.
In an interview with the Guardian, he described his unusual ploy to persuade Winger to return to the big screen.
He promised her a Highland cow, noting, “They looked like loaves of bread from far away.”
Winger, who loves this Scottish breed, agreed to join the cast. Whether Howard kept his end of the deal remains a mystery – the pair rarely agree to interviews.
18. She taught at Harvard on her break from acting
During her break from acting in the late 90s, Winger joined Harvard University as a Teaching Fellow.
Winger herself was the one to approach Harvard with her teaching application. She taught a course named The Literature of Social Reflection.
During this acting hiatus Winger also wrote a book called Undiscovered, which was published in 2008.
She also did a spot of theatre work with her director husband Arliss Howard in Boston.
Winger gets notoriously defensive over this so-called ‘break’, and has previously expressed her annoyance over the assumption that she did no work during her years-long hiatus.
“I don’t know what people are talking about when they say I’ve ‘come back’. I’ve been working all along,” she said in a 2008 interview with The Independent.
17. Director George Cukor tried to put Winger off acting by telling her she had “no class” when she was 14
At the age of 14, Winger already had huge dreams about being an actress, although she was somewhat afraid to pursue them.
By chance, her father had recently installed a burglar alarm in the home of George Cukor, the famous director.
Winger’s dad fixed her an interview with Cukor, during which Cukor berated her, saying “that voice, and you got no walk and you got no class!”
As an adult, Winger suspects that her father may have cajoled Cukor into this criticism, in the hopes of deterring her from the acting industry.
Cukor was still alive when Winger hit the big time and secured her first big role in the 1980 film Urban Cowboy.
Unfortunately Cukor passed away just a few days before Winger’s Oscar nomination for Best Actress in An Officer and a Gentleman was announced.
16. She shut production down on Urban Cowboy for a whole day because she didn’t like the way a scene was written
Director James Bridges first worked with Winger on Urban Cowboy, and said that a simple script dispute with her turned into a “horrendous fight.”
“She refused to play a scene, and I had to shut down the set for a whole day,” he said in an interview with the New York Times in 1986.
“I was furious with her, but then I looked at the scene and realized that there was something wrong with the dialogue,” he recalled.
“Her instinct had been right.” Bridges came to realise that Winger was actually driven by perfectionism and was not being needlessly dramatic.
Impressed by her dedication, Bridges would direct Winger again in the mystery thriller Mike’s Murder.
Bridges essentially wrote the film for Winger and always intended to have her starring as leading character Betty Parrish.
15. She made her name in TV’s Wonder Woman, but eventually paid to get out of her own contract
Among Winger’s earliest roles was Wonder Girl, the younger sister of Diana Prince in 1975 series Wonder Woman.
But she soon grew tired of the role, and wanted to move onto something more challenging.
Reportedly, Winger bought herself out of her own contract. (Even the producers’ offer of a Wonder Girl spin-off series wasn’t enough to keep her.)
Speaking to the New York Times, Winger reflected on how she tried to escape being associated with the TV series.
“I spent my entire early career trying to live down Wonder Woman,” she confessed in 2010.
With a career now spanning decades and two Oscar nominations under her belt, it’s safe to say that Winger did ultimately break free of any immediate association with Wonder Woman.
14. She didn’t like working with Lynda Carter
Wonder Woman star Lynda Carter faced multiple complaints from a number of her co-stars, including Debra Winger.
Winger has claimed in interviews that Carter was so self-centred that she was adamant that Winger’s costume and makeup was less glamorous than her own.
Carter defended herself by pointing out that Winger often had disagreements with her colleagues throughout her working life.
But Lyle Waggoner, who played Steve Trevor on Wonder Woman, was also not a huge fan of Carter.
Even though Carter and Winger didn’t get on that well, Carter still looked out for Winger on set.
Carter has claimed that she would always support Winger and often stayed late on set just to make sure the young actress was looked after.
13. She had a fling with then-Governor of Nebraska Bob Kerrey while filming Terms of Endearment
While filming Terms of Endearment in the early 80s, Winger was told that the Governor of Nebraska, Bob Kerrey, was keen to meet her.
Winger hesitated and was uncertain that they’d be a good match, claiming his head was too big and that he was too “conservative.”
The two finally met for dinner and ended up falling for each other, leading to a years-long relationship.
Kerrey, who lost part of his lower leg in Vietnam, reportedly joked that “she swept me off my foot.”
However, the difference in their lifestyles proved too much and the couple came to realise that their relationship couldn’t last long term.
“I tried the pillbox hat for a while,” Winger said of the relationship. “But I couldn’t.”
12. She accidentally agreed to star in a fake film with Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp
Work on Divine Rapture began in 1995, with Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp, and Winger all signed up for the film with Thomas Eberhardt on board as director. The film was supposed to centre on Mary (Winger), a woman who dies only to (seemingly) rise from the dead during her funeral.
Mary is heralded as a saint – although ultimately it turns out that she actually just has a rare disorder that massively slows her heart rate. Shooting had started on the film in the Irish town of Ballycotton, which was expected to generate significant revenue from the production.
Unfortunately, only 24 minutes of footage had been shot over the course of 13 days before things started to go south for the doomed project.
It turned out that the escrow account for the film’s production company, CineFin, was actually non-existent – which was brought to the crew’s attention after Winger checked her accounts in Los Angeles, and she realised she hadn’t received a penny of her promised $1.5 million salary.
Winger looked back on the failed project while talking to The Guardian in 2009: “The stories that you remember for whatever reason are often the ones like this – the traumatic ones. It was a life lesson, that’s the best way to put it.”
For Winger, who was already debating leaving the industry at the time, the stressful Divine Rapture fiasco was the final straw. She stepped back from acting for six years after the fraudulent enterprise collapsed.
11. She used to keep her Screen Actors Guild retirement card taped above her mirror as a reminder
Winger stepped back from acting in the mid-90s for several reasons – but mainly because she was sick and tired of the industry.
While speaking to The Guardian in 2002, Winger went so far as to say that she “hated the business.”
In 1995, Winger signed her Screen Actors Guild retirement card when she decided to quit films for the foreseeable future.
She went as far as taping the retirement card above her mirror so that she could look at it every day as a reminder.
Winger isn’t exactly churning out blockbuster hits anymore, but she has made a tentative return to the limelight of late.
Her most recent venture was the 2020 film Kajillionaire, where she portrayed Theresa Dyne, mother to lead Evan Rachel Wood’s Old Dolio Dyne.
10. She lived with tribespeople in the Sahara Desert to “recover” from filming The Sheltering Sky
Winger dazzled in the 1990 British-Italian film The Sheltering Sky, which was largely filmed in the Sahara Desert.
Winger enjoyed her time in the desert so much that she actually stayed behind after filming wrapped.
For one week, Winger lived with the Tuareg tribespeople native to the Sahara in order to “recover” from filming.
Some of the tribespeople actually featured in the last sequences of the film, acting as Kit Moresby’s captors.
Winger claimed that her one week in the desert was her way of putting the role behind her and experiencing the desert as her own person, as opposed to as Kit.
The romantic drama was a huge success and went on to win both a BAFTA and a Golden Globe.
9. Winger’s ex Nick Nolte called her “hellfire” in his autobiography
Speaking to the LA Times in 2015, Nolte hesitated when asked about his relationship with Winger.
The two worked together on the 1982 film Cannery Row and the 1990 film Everybody Wins, and actually dated for a brief while.
“Debra would seduce a film. She’d gain control over it,” Nolte said of his former girlfriend and colleague. “She was known for being rough.”
“Winger had a wicked sense of humor that I really loved. But she might come in the morning into my trailer and, wham, hit me,” he revealed.
Nolte also alluded to the fraught relationship between himself and the actress in his autobiography.
In Rebel: My Life Outside the Lines, Nolte’s 2018 memoir, the actor described his two-time co-star as “hellfire.”
8. She says Harvey Weinstein is “the biggest pig or misogynist” she ever met in Hollywood
In 2018, Winger appeared on talk show Watch What Happens Live with host Andy Cohen.
Winger played the game ‘Plead the Fifth’ with Cohen, where she was asked three questions with the option of skipping just one.
Cohen opened with “who was the biggest pig or misogynist you ever met in Hollywood?”
Winger buried her face in her hands before saying “you know, he’s already under indictment.”
Cohen cottoned on and said “Harvey, Harvey,” as Winger nodded in affirmation. In February 2020 Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for his crimes.
He is currently serving his sentence at Wende Correctional Facility and awaiting a second trial in Los Angeles.
7. She’s feuded with Madonna
When director Penny Marshall cast Madonna in 1992 film A League of Their Own, Winger was livid.
The actress berated Marshall, telling her “You’re making an Elvis movie” – but the director went ahead with her decision.
Winger was so angry that she dropped out of the film, leaving Geena Davis to take over her role.
A League of Their Own still went on to be a hit, but Madonna nonetheless later shared her contempt for Winger with Carrie Fisher.
Madonna told the Star Wars legend that one of her nicknames had been ‘Kit Moresby,’ after the Sheltering Sky character – but since Winger herself had played Moresby in the 1990 film, Madonna no longer wanted to be associated with the character after their falling out.
“I didn’t want to be Kit Moresby anymore, because it was so disappointing. I didn’t want people to think that I was Debra Winger,” said Madonna.
6. She was forced to film a nude scene for An Officer and a Gentleman
Every actor or actress involved in a film usually draws up a contract before shooting starts to make sure their boundaries are respected.
Normally, contracts are helpful and allow films to be made with minimum fuss or difficulty. But sometimes, omitted clauses or loopholes can be exploited and leave film stars in sticky situations.
The contracts for Richard Gere and Winger were somewhat rushed on An Officer and a Gentleman, with the inexperienced Winger actually representing herself when it came to writing up the deal.
Without legal training, Winger omitted a lot of important clauses from her contract and only based her demands on the script she’d read. Notably, she did not include any clause which stipulated that she would not shoot any nude scenes.
But scripts and circumstances change, so when a sex scene was added to the film, Winger objected but found that she was not protected by her contract, which said nothing of sex scenes or nudity.
Winger was contractually obliged to shoot the scene despite her protestations. To make matters worse, though the finished sequence was significantly cut down to just a few seconds, Winger was made to film an unusually lengthy love scene that lasted several minutes.
5. James L Brooks wrote Broadcast News especially for Winger, but she turned it down when she got pregnant
Winger so impressed director James L Brooks while working with him on Terms of Endearment that he went on to write an entire film especially for Winger.
Broadcast News, which was released in 1987, was initially supposed to have Winger star as leading lady Jane Craig.
Unfortunately for Brooks, Winger fell pregnant with her first son, Noah Hutton, just before production started.
Brooks was forced to reconsider and recast the role. He eventually settled on up-and-coming actress Holly Hunter.
While Winger’s pregnancy initially looked like bad news for the film, it was arguably a blessing in disguise.
Hunter secured an Academy Award nomination for her performance in the film, which cemented her position as a critically acclaimed star.
4. She chose the role of the FBI agent over the title role in 1987’s Black Widow because she didn’t understand the Black Widow’s motivation
For 1987’s Black Widow, Winger was actually given the choice between the eponymous Black Widow and FBI agent Alexandra.
Rather than plump for the title role, Winger asked if she could instead take the part of detective Alexandra.
Why? Winger felt as though she didn’t understand the motivation behind the Black Widow’s murderous habits.
The title role ultimately went to Theresa Russell, who was praised by the New York Times for “[coming] into her own” in the film.
The film ultimately received decidedly average reviews, however. It won no awards, nor was it nominated for any.
Legendary critic Roger Ebert handed the film a mediocre 2.5 stars, while on Rotten Tomatoes the film holds a rating of 50%.
3. She spent a good part of the 1980s trying to get cast in a biographical film about Libby Holman
Winger turned down a number of prestigious roles in the early days of her career, including Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
She spent a great deal of time in the 1980s vying for darker, more mysterious roles.
Winger was desperate to star in biopics of wayward female figures such as Mabel Normand, Isabel Eberhardt, and Libby Holman.
Winger was particularly keen to play Holman, a torch singer and civil rights activist.
Unfortunately, Winger had irked a number of influential people in Hollywood with her outspoken attitude.
Directors were reluctant to cast her, and in any case the studios were also unwilling to finance many female-led biopics, and so the film was never made.
2. Bette Davis once said “I see a great deal of myself in Debra Winger”
Over the years, Winger has developed quite a reputation for her outspoken and feisty attitude.
For example, she openly expressed her contempt for her co-star in An Officer and a Gentleman, Richard Gere.
She also refused to do any publicity for that film, which furthered her perception as ‘difficult.’
But not everyone has it in for Winger. Many believe that she’s been unfairly persecuted for being a strong woman – Bette Davis included.
When Barbara Walters interviewed Davis in 1986, the actress had nothing but warm words for Winger.
“I see a great deal of myself in Debra Winger,” the legendary actress revealed in the interview.
1. She once narrated an orchestral performance based on the life of Anne Frank
In 1995, Winger appeared in London, Washington, and New York with both the London Symphony and the New World Symphony.
The orchestra was under the direction of Michael Tilson-Thomas and performed a symphony based on the life of Anne Frank.
Winger provided the narration to Thomas’ composition, which drew inspiration from Anne Frank’s diary.
The symphony was originally commissioned back in 1990 by Audrey Hepburn, who was then working as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.
As Hepburn lived in the Netherlands during World War II, she had a great deal of sympathy for Anne and wanted to bring her words to a wider audience.
Hepburn initially narrated the work, called From the Diary of Anne Frank, in 1990. Then in 1995, two years after Hepburn’s passing, Winger was invited to narrate the symphony on an anniversary tour.