A Return For Debra Winger

Actress Debra Winger
Actress Debra Winger
Debra Winger shared critical acclaim with actress Shirley MacLaine the film "Terms of Endearment" a quarter-century ago. Now, after a long absence from the screen, she is back in the spotlight. Tracy Smith offers this Sunday Profile.

She strode into the Hollywood limelight in tight jeans and cowboy boots, a virtual unknown with plenty of talent, and an attitude as big as her ten-gallon hat in "Urban Cowboy," going toe-to-toe with John Travolta.

The next hat she wore was Richard Gere's in "An Officer and a Gentleman," a role that won her her first Oscar nomination.

And then she broke the country's heart in "Terms of Endearment."

Almost thirty years later, the roles Debra Winger brought to life still resonate as powerfully as ever, particularly with women, who lined up recently at the Jacob Barnes Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., to hear what she has to say.

"She doesn't look all made up, she looks like a regular person - that's who she is," said Audrey Weill.

"I'll never forget that scene (from "Terms") in the hospital with her boys," Ellen Lewis recalled. "It just really made an impression on me. I just don't know how somebody can go through something like that."

And yet, quick - name the last movie you saw Debra Winger in.

"I fled, it's true," Winger told Smith.

Winger's Hollywood exit, as definitive as her entrance a little more than a decade earlier, even inspired a documentary by fellow actress Rosanna Arquette, "Searching for Debra Winger."

Why did Debra Winger leave? Why'd she just walk away?

"I had a pretty big ride in the late '70s and '80s and I had to equal that in real life," she said.

Getting her to talk about her life's journey requires a little journeying of one's own … in this case up the side of a hill near her Catskill Mountains farmhouse, to a treehouse built by her husband, director Arliss Howard.

As she said, he got a little carried away, what with the winding spiral staircase and swaying rope bridge. There, Debra Winger actually talked about herself, though she described talking about her past as "torturous."

"I wasn't a big history buff, either," she said. "It's not so much me, it's any - "

"Any past?" Smith asked. "I mean, you were nominated for three Oscars."

"There's an -ed on that word!" Winger laughed.

(Simon & Schuster)
She gave people a peek into her life in a recent book "Undiscovered" (Simon & Schuster).

It's not so much autobiography as it is philosophy, a collection of thoughts and essays that, she says, a book agent had to beg her to publish.

"I would love to say, 'And then I felt it was time to publish this book.' But really, I was taken kicking and screaming and against my better judgment."

She was born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and though the family moved to southern California when she was young, Winger says she never dreamed of being an actress.

She actually wanted to go into criminal rehabilitation and counseling when she was young.

But in her teenage years, fate intervened. In her book she wrote of a life-changing moment when she fell off a truck.

"At 17, I had, you know, sort of an event," she said. "I think a lot of people have one in their life. Sometimes it's a crisis, or a loss, or sometimes it's an accident. It's a mortality sandwich, and you have to eat it!