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Debra Winger: The Wonder Girl Of 'Urban Cowboy,' 'Officer And A Gentleman'

Entertainment | May 16, 2021

Debra Winger in 'Urban Cowboy.' Source: IMDB / Paramout Pictures

With a streak of hot movies in the early '80s -- Urban Cowboy, Cannery Row, An Officer And A Gentleman, and Terms Of Endearment -- Debra Winger quickly became one of the most celebrated actresses of her era. As Oscar and Golden Globe nominations piled up, Winger's days of playing Wonder Girl to Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman faded away. Though gifted with as much natural beauty as anyone in Hollywood, Winger eschewed glam roles and excelled at playing characters who live in the same world as the audience watching her films. "I've always been a poster child for 'Let's take the makeup down a notch,'" she once said.

An Accident Led Her To Pursue Her Dreams

With Randy Ralston in Slumber Party '57. Source: (IMDb).

Debra Winger, who was named after her father’s favorite actress, Debra Paget, was born on March 16. 1955 in Cleveland Ohio. Her family moved to California when she was five. She found a love of acting in high school but went to college to study criminology. After an accident while working part time in an amusement park, she went temporarily blind. After her recovery, she left college and studied acting.

She Really Didn't Love Being Wonder Girl

With Lynda Carter and Carolyn Jones. Source: (IMDb).

At first, she acted in commercials and guest starred on shows like Police Woman. She got her start in the role of Debbie in the 1976 film Slumber Party ’57, a movie about teenage girls at a slumber party talking about their first sexual experiences. In 1975, she appeared on Wonder Woman as Diana’s little sister, Drusilla, aka Wonder Girl. Reportedly, the producers offered her a spin-off, but she bought herself out of her contract, after appearing in only three episodes. In 2010 she told The New York Times, “I spent my entire early career trying to live down Wonder Woman.” After she left the show, she appeared in a few other tv shows and tv movies, as well as two movies: Thank God It’s Friday and French Postcards, which did not enhance her career.

Costarring With A Mechanical Bull

With John Travolta in Urban Cowboy. Source: (Decider).

Her first major film was Urban Cowboy, as Sissy, a role which Sissy Spacek had turned down. There were a number of other young actresses vying for the role, but the director threatened to quit if Winger was not cast. Winger played the role of John Travolta’s wife, and the scene where she rode the mechanical bull put her into the position of being a sex symbol (and led to the popularity of the mechanical bull!) To prepare For Urban Cowboy, she took a hands-on approach to preparing for the role, reportedly sleeping in a cemetery, slugging tequila, and working out her biceps to get them in shape. She even didn’t wear underwear during the filming because she thought her character wouldn’t. While she may have been great on-screen, she did shut down shooting for a day because she didn’t like the way a scene was written. 

Her First Oscar Nomination

With Richard Gere. Source: (Pinterest).

The film was followed by a flop, Cannery Row (1982), and, interestingly enough, she provided the rough cut for E.T.’s voice, and appeared for a few seconds in the Halloween scene in the film, carrying a poodle and wearing a zombie mask. She then landed a role in An Officer and A Gentleman (1982), which was not only a box office hit, but also earned her an Oscar nomination. She apparently did not like her costar, Richard Gere, and the two of them did not get along and she referred to him as a “brick wall.” Despite the off-screen tension, they Because she had to draw up her own contract for An Officer and a Gentleman, and did not have experience writing contracts, she forgot to include clauses stating she would not act in a nude scene or a sex scene, so when the issue arose during filming, her contract did not protect her. 

Terms Of Endearment

With Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson. Source: (Warner Bros./Mental Floss).

Her problems with Gere were notorious, and her problems with another actress, Shirley MacLaine became similarly well known. She was cast as MacLaine’s daughter in Terms of Endearment (1983). The film won the Oscar for Best Picture, and also earned her a second nomination, so it seems that their off-screen clashes helped to create the characters’ complex relationship. During filming she met Bob Kerrey, the then-governor of Nebraska and they began dating, but she broke it off because she recognized she couldn’t be the wife of a politician. Then she eloped with Timothy Hutton, and they had a son, Noah Hutton, before they got divorced a few years later.

She Was Almost In Several Other Movies

The reason she didn't want to be in A League of their Own. Source: (Pinterest).

After Terms of Endearment, James L. Brooks wrote Broadcast News, with the intention of casting her as Jane Craig, but Winger got pregnant. This was not the only role she had to turn down. She was initially cast in Peggy Sue Got Married, but she had to drop out of the film because of the back injury she sustained in her earlier accident. She also walked away from other films. She dropped out of A League of Their Own because Penny Marshall cast Madonna; Geena Davis took over Winger’s role. She also turned down the role of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark. She was considered for the role of Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, though she turned it down to act in Black Widow.

Coming Back With The Promise Of A Cow

With Anthony Hopkins in Shadowlands. Source: (Art House Film Wire).

She continued to act after the success of Terms of Endearment, winning her third Academy Award nomination for Shadowlands in 1993. She began working on a film with Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando in 1995, Divine Rapture, but after 13 days of filming, they discovered that they weren’t getting paid as the film’s escrow account was empty, so filming stopped. In addition to being tired of the business, this debacle was one of the reasons she decided to step back from acting. In 1995, she took a hiatus from Hollywood and during the break, she taught at Harvard and wrote a book called Undiscovered. Her husband, Arliss Howard, wanted her to be his leading lady in a film he was directing, Big Bad Love, and so he lured her back by promising to buy her a highland cow. While there is no indication she now owns a cow, she did return to acting. 

Tags: Ladies | Terms Of Endearment | Then And Now | Debra Winger | An Officer And A Gentleman | Urban Cowboy

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!