Debra Lynn Winger was born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, into an Orthodox Jewish family, to Robert Winger, a meat packer, and Ruth (née Felder), an office manager. Over the years, she told many interviewers that she volunteered on an Israeli kibbutz, sometimes even saying she had trained with the Israel Defense Forces, but in a 2008 interview she said she was merely on a typical youth tour that visited the kibbutz. At the age of 18, after returning to the United States, she was involved in a car accident and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage; as a result, she was left partially paralyzed and blind for 10 months, having initially been told that she would never see again. With time on her hands to think about her life, she decided that, if she recovered, she would move to California and become an actress.
Winger's first acting role was as "Debbie" in the 1976 sexploitation film Slumber Party '57. Her next role was as Diana Prince's younger sister Drusilla (Wonder Girl) in three episodes of ABC's TV series, Wonder Woman. The producers had wanted her to appear more often, but she refused, fearing that the role would hurt her fledgling career. This was followed by a guest role in Season 4 of the TV drama Police Woman in 1978.
Her first starring role was in Thank God It's Friday, followed by her performance in Urban Cowboy in 1980 with John Travolta, for which she received a BAFTA nomination and a pair of Golden Globe nominations (for Best Performance by an Actress and Best New Star). In 1982 she co-starred with Nick Nolte in Cannery Row and with Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress twice more: for Terms of Endearment in 1983 (which was awarded to her co-star, Shirley MacLaine, who played her mother in the film) and for Shadowlands in 1993, for which she also received her second BAFTA nomination. Her performance in A Dangerous Woman earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.
Over the years Winger acquired a reputation for being outspoken and sometimes difficult to work with. She has expressed her dislike of An Officer and a Gentleman (and her costar Richard Gere), for which she refused to do any publicity, and several other of her films, and has been dismissive of some of her co-stars and directors. Commenting on her past attitudes, Winger said in 2009, "Most bad behavior comes from insecurity. Even though I loved what I was doing, I didn't always know I could pull it off. (...) I took [my insecurities out] on everybody. But in my defense, I never fought about the size of my trailer or things like that; it was always about the work." When Barbara Walters interviewed Bette Davis in 1986, Davis said "I see a great deal of myself in Debra Winger."
Winger was going to play Peggy Sue in Peggy Sue Got Married but was forced to back out just before production began when she injured her back in a bicycle accident. The injury affected her ability to work for several months afterward. She was cast in the lead role in A League of their Own but dropped out and was replaced by Geena Davis. It was later reported that the main reason Winger chose to leave the film was her refusal to work with singer/actress Madonna. Other starring roles during this period included Legal Eagles, Made in Heaven, Everybody Wins, The Sheltering Sky, Leap of Faith, Black Widow, Betrayed, Wilder Napalm and A Dangerous Woman.
In 1995 Winger decided to take a hiatus from acting. In 2002 she said, "I wanted out for years. 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. People said, 'We miss you so much.' But in the last six years, tell me a film that I should have been in. The few I can think of, the actress was so perfect". After making Forget Paris in 1995 she was absent from the screen for six years before returning in 2001 with Big Bad Love, written and directed by her husband, Arliss Howard, and also marking Winger's debut as a producer.
During her film hiatus, Winger had the female lead in the American Repertory Theater's production of Anton Chekhov's play Ivanov from November 1999 to January 2000.
In 2001 a critically acclaimed documentary film titled Searching for Debra Winger was made by Rosanna Arquette and released in 2002 after Winger returned to film acting. She subsequently starred in the films Radio, Eulogy, Sometimes in April and received positive reviews for portraying Anne Hathaway's estranged mother in Rachel Getting Married.
She earned an Emmy Award nomination for her title role in the television film Dawn Anna in 2005, directed by Arliss Howard. In 2010 she returned to television, making a guest appearance as a high school principal in an episode of Law & Order. She also joined the cast of HBO's In Treatment as one of the three patients featured in the third season.
Her other acting project is a starring role in the upcoming film In the Woods, the first installment of Jennifer Elster's multimedia, experimental film series The Being Experience, planned for multi-platform release in 2013 and 2014, also including: Terrence Howard, Dave Matthews, Rufus Wainwright, Karen Black, Will Shortz, Liya Kebede, Questlove, Famke Janssen, Moby, Gale Harold, Paz de la Huerta, Jorgen Leth, Rosie Perez, Aubrey de Grey, and Alan Cumming. She also stars opposite Sam Elliott and Ashton Kutcher in the 2016 Netflix multi-cam comedy The Ranch. She also had a cameo as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in the TV Miniseries When We Rise.
In 2017, she starred in her first romantic lead after many years in The Lovers.
In 1995 Winger performed in The Wizard of Oz in Concert: Dreams Come True a television musical performance of the popular 1939 MGM film at Lincoln Center to benefit the Children's Defense Fund. Her roles in that television special were the "Cyclone" narrator and the Wicked Witch of the West. It was originally broadcast on both TBS and TNT.
During her hiatus from the film industry, Winger spent a semester as a teaching fellow at Harvard University. In 2008 Winger wrote a book based on her personal recollections titled Undiscovered. She has shown her support for reconciliation between Arabs and Jews in Israel by visiting the bilingual Hand in Hand schools (Galilee Jewish-Arab School, Gesher al HaWadi School) where, in 2008, she stated she would "dedicate the next bit of my life to these schools".
As 2009 president of the Zurich Film Festival jury, Winger joined other members of the Hollywood film community to speak out against the arrest and prosecution of director Roman Polanski who was convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl in the 1970s, criticizing Switzerland's government for "philistine collusion" in arresting him so many years later, as he was en route to attend the Zurich festival.
In 2010 Debra Winger was co-executive producer of the Academy Award-nominated documentary, Gasland. She was also the executive producer of the 2012 documentary Bel Borba Aqui about the life and works of Brazilian graphic artist Bel Borba.
Winger's three-year relationship with actor Andrew Rubin ended in 1980. From 1983 to 1985 Winger dated Bob Kerrey, at the time the Governor of Nebraska, whom she met while filming Terms of Endearment in Lincoln, Nebraska. Winger has also dated her Cannery Row and Everybody Wins co-star Nick Nolte.
From 1986 to 1990 she was married to actor Timothy Hutton with whom she had a son, Noah Hutton, a documentary filmmaker born in 1987. The marriage ended in divorce.
In 1996 she married actor/director Arliss Howard, whom she met on the set of the film Wilder Napalm. Their son, Gideon Babe Ruth Howard (known as Babe), was born in 1997. She is stepmother to Sam Howard, Arliss's son from his prior marriage.
Winger has had feuds with some of her co-stars, notably Richard Gere of An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Shirley MacLaine of Terms of Endearment (1983).