In 2010, she received France's highest honour, the Légion d'honneur.
Bisset was born Winifred Jacqueline Fraser Bisset in Weybridge, Surrey, England, the daughter of Max Fraser Bisset, a general practitioner, and Arlette Alexander, a lawyer turned housewife. Her mother was of French and English descent and her father was of Scottish descent; Bisset's mother cycled from Paris and boarded a British troop transport to escape the Germans during World War II.
Bisset grew up in Tilehurst, near Reading in Berkshire, in a 17th-century country cottage, where she now lives part of the year She has a brother, Max. Her mother taught her to speak French fluently, and she was educated at the Lycée Français in London. She had taken ballet lessons as a child and began taking acting lessons and fashion modelling to pay for them. When Bisset was a teenager, her mother was diagnosed with disseminating sclerosis.
Bisset's parents divorced in 1968, after 28 years of marriage. Her father died aged 71 of a brain tumour in 1982. Her mother died in 1999.
Bisset first appeared uncredited as a prospective model in the 1965 film The Knack ...and How to Get It. She made her official debut the following year in Roman Polanski's Cul-de-sac (1966). In 1967, she appeared in Albert Finney/Audrey Hepburn vehicle Two for the Road. Next, she participated in the James Bond satire, Casino Royale, as Miss Goodthighs. That same year, she played her first lead role in The Cape Town Affair, opposite James Brolin.
Bisset gained mainstream recognition in 1968 when she replaced Mia Farrow for the role of Norma MacIver in The Detective, opposite Frank Sinatra. In the same year, she co-starred with Michael Sarrazin in The Sweet Ride, which brought her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer. She capped her year as Steve McQueen's girlfriend in the police drama Bullitt, which was among the top five highest-grossing films of the year.
In 1969 she appeared in the sex comedy The First Time. She was one of the many stars in the 1970 disaster film Airport, as a pregnant stewardess carrying Dean Martin's love child. Following films included The Mephisto Waltz (1971) with Alan Alda, The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973) with Ryan O'Neal, End of the Game (1975) with Jon Voight and St. Ives (1976) with Charles Bronson.
Several of Bisset's movies are also French or Italian productions. In 1973, she appeared in François Truffaut's Day for Night, where she earned the respect of European critics and moviegoers as a serious actress. She co-starred with Marcello Mastroianni in Luigi Comencini's La donna della domenica in 1975.
In 1977, Bisset gained wide publicity in America with her movie The Deep. Swimming underwater wearing only a T-shirt for a top helped make the film a box office success, leading producer Peter Guber to quip, "That T-shirt made me a rich man," and led many to credit her with popularising the wet T-shirt contest. At the time, Newsweek declared her "the most beautiful film actress of all time." About that time, a small Dutch-produced film Bisset had made some years earlier was re-released in the United States under the title Secrets. That movie featured the only extensive nude scenes of Bisset's career and the producers cashed in on her fame.
By 1978, she was a household name. In that year she earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress (Comedy) for her performance in Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, and starred opposite Anthony Quinn in The Greek Tycoon. Soon thereafter, she played in the movies When Time Ran Out (1980) with Paul Newman, and George Cukor's Rich and Famous (1981) with Candice Bergen, where she also served as co-producer. One of her well-known roles was in Class (1983), where she played Rob Lowe's attractive mother who has an affair with her son's prep school roommate (Andrew McCarthy). She earned another Golden Globe nomination for her role in John Huston's Under the Volcano (1984) opposite Albert Finney. In 1989, she starred in the racy comedy Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills as a lascivious suburban widow, and as Carré Otis' employer/educator in the controversial erotic thriller Wild Orchid (1990) with Mickey Rourke.
Bisset has appeared in many made-for-TV movies since the mid-1980s, starting with the cable adaptation of Anna Karenina with Christopher Reeve in 1985. One of her later TV movies, in 2003, was America's Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story, in which she portrayed Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Bisset's other television work includes the Biblical epics Jesus (1999) and In the Beginning (2000), and the miniseries Joan of Arc, which earned her an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
In 1996, Bisset was nominated for a César Award for her role in the French film La Cérémonie. She appeared in the 16th century period drama Dangerous Beauty (1998) as Catherine McCormack's mother, a retired Venetian courtesan, and had the leading role in the 2001 independent feature The Sleepy Time Gal, which premiered on the Sundance Channel and was cited by the Village Voice in its annual survey of the year's best undistributed films. In 2005, she was seen in the Domino Harvey biographical film Domino with Keira Knightley, directed by Tony Scott, in which Bisset played a fictionalized version of Paulene Stone (renamed "Sophie Wynn") whom she actually knew from her time as a model in London.
In 2006, Bisset had a recurring role on the TV series Nip/Tuck as the ruthless extortionist James. She starred in the lead role of Boaz Yakin's Death in Love which premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Later that year, she starred in the Hallmark television film An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving. She recently finished filming The Last Film Festival, which was the final screen appearance of Dennis Hopper.
In 2010, Bisset was awarded the Légion d'honneur insignia, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy calling her "a movie icon."
She returned to the UK to film Stephen Poliakoff's 1930s jazz drama series, Dancing on the Edge, which started on BBC2 in 2013. For her work, she won the Golden Globe for Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film. In 2015, she co-starred with Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette in the film Miss You Already.
Bisset has never married, though she has had lengthy romances with French-Canadian actor Michael Sarrazin, Moroccan real estate magnate Victor Drai, Russian dancer/actor Alexander Godunov, Swiss actor Vincent Pérez, and Turkish martial arts instructor Emin Boztepe. "I feel like I was married to them because I was very dedicated to them", she said in a 2008 interview. "But I also used to feel claustrophobic. Like many people who don't easily commit, I think I had a fear of being known; I was not sure there was anybody inside there."
Boztepe and Perez were 18 and 20 years her junior, respectively. Bisset has said,
I remember reading an article that referred to Emin as a "toy boy" and thinking "What on earth is that?" That phrase is one of the most insulting things - it's so rude and comes from pure jealousy I think. He was younger than me, but he was so much a man that calling him a toy boy was ludicrous! And I was so embarrassed for him because it was highly inappropriate. It's also disrespectful to talk about women as cougars. It's very derogatory and silly and all part of this negative kind of thinking that I try very hard to ignore. But they do say that sexually, a man is at his height at 18 and a woman at 35, so that's nature's way. I just think that people are attracted to what they want and need for however long it works.
Bisset is godmother to actress Angelina Jolie.