By Mary Vespa
June 06, 1983 12:00 PM

Debra Winger’s last movie was the megasmash An Officer and a Gentleman; her next is the upcoming Terms of Endearment, and recently both films seemed prophetically and aptly named. For no sooner had Debra arrived on Endearment’s Lincoln, Nebr. location than she set off a prairie fire of passion, traipsing off for a spring fling with the state’s dashing young war hero Governor, Bob Kerrey.

It began innocently enough when Kerrey—a Medal of Honor winner who lost his right foot in Vietnam—presented Winger with an award making her an honorary member of the “Nebraska Navy.” Describing himself as “a naval officer myself and sometime gentleman,” Kerrey, 39, urged Winger, 28, to “have fun in Lincoln.” She smiled and huskily replied, “You, too!” They did.

The unlikely duo soon stepped out for a Saturday night at the state capital’s funky Zoo Bar, a small, dark blues-and-rock hotspot. The Democratic Governor, who nosed out Tom Selleck on UPI’s recent list of the World’s Top 10 Eligible Bachelors, walked in sporting an off-white suit—and the press-shy Winger. “Kerrey knew it was a hangout for journalists,” says one woman patron. “I think he really manipulated Debra because she didn’t know that. He has a reputation for charming women. I could see she was smitten.”

But the dynamic Kerrey also proved a coy media tease. At his next news conference, he chided reporters for not asking about his date. When a TV journalist finally questioned what it was like to squire the sexy actress, the Governor delivered the line he obviously had prepared: “Fluff up your pillow and dream about it.” Kerrey later took Winger to a reception in his mansion, to local restaurants, and several times visited at her on-set trailer.

The land of the Cornhuskers soon was poppin’ with Midwestern wisecracks. A Lincoln tour guide at Kerrey’s mansion joked to visitors that they could “view Debra Winger at the mansion on Friday nights from 10 p.m. to midnight.” A state legislator, who had never seen a steamy Winger film, exclaimed after spotting the actress: “All this fuss about that bow-legged little thing!” The movie crew dabbled in such tasteless jokes as: “Debra Winger swept Bob Kerrey off his foot.”

Meanwhile the press loved the love-bugs. The Omaha World-Herald ran a story comparing the couple to former California Gov. Jerry Brown and singer Linda Ronstadt. Syndicated columnist Marilyn Beck wondered whether the movie star and Kerrey would marry, as had TV’s Phyllis George and Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown.

Though previously little known beyond Nebraska, Rockin’ Bob Kerrey, as he is affectionately called around town, is a hometown Lincoln boy made good. One of a businessman’s seven children, he graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1966 with a degree in pharmacy. He became a lieutenant (jg) in the Navy and won the Congressional Medal of Honor, Bronze Star and Purple Heart for leading a commando team assault at Nha Trang Bay in 1969, losing his lower right leg to a grenade explosion. After the war he opened a chain of folksy restaurants, a bowling alley and a health and racquet club. The father of two, he has become known as something of a ladies’ man since his 1978 divorce from Beverly Kay Defnall, a former schoolteacher.

While Winger caught Kerrey’s fancy, she got mixed reviews from other Lincolnites hired for Terms of Endearment (based on Larry McMurtry’s 1975 novel), in which she stars with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson. Debra’s penchant for four-letter words offended some. “When I was talking to her she was really warm and nice,” says Shelley Nielsen, a nurse at Lincoln General Hospital, where part of the movie was shot. “But public swearing isn’t acceptable here. The locals would see her and say, ‘Here comes I.c. [low class].’ ”

Kerrey aides, worried about his getting a flakey Jerry Brown image, breathed a collective sigh of relief when Winger boarded a train for New York (a punctured eardrum prevents flying) to finish filming. As for their future, Winger and Kerrey aren’t talking. “I don’t think Debra has a ‘love’ boyfriend per se,” confides her California-based mother, Ruth. “She has lots of men friends. I don’t think she’s ready to settle down. I did tell her I would find Lincoln very hard to travel to.”