By Peter Lester
August 18, 1980 12:00 PM

“When I first met John Travolta,” Debra Winger recalls, “the first three questions he asked were, ‘Are you Jewish?’, ‘Did you graduate from college?’ and…I can’t remember the other one,” she deadpans. “It was probably sexual.”

It figures. The answer to No. 1 is Yes; No. 2 is Not Quite; and the evidence of the third is palpably present for the world to see in their collaboration in Urban Cowboy. As a two-steppin’, two-timin’ Texas firecracker, Winger generates enough sexual energy to power the mechanical bull at Gilley’s—not to mention retrieving Travolta from the long-nailed clutches of her oil heiress rival played by Madolyn Smith (see following story). Winger, agrees Travolta, “is very, very sexy and sensuous and funny and smart.”

At 25, Debra is also a California free spirit whose casting, as she readily confirms, was “totally off the wall.” Her previous credits included little more than a few TV guest shots (Police Woman) and a short, unhappy stint as Lynda Carter’s kid sister on Wonder Woman. In fact, Debra gained her career-changing role in Cowboy over 200 other aspirants partly because of her tangible desperation. Before shooting, the teetotaling Winger, who had never been to Texas, practiced slugging tequila with beer chasers at Gilley’s and worked out on Nautilus equipment to build up her biceps. During filming she refused to wear underwear (even beneath her bridal gown) because she thought the character wouldn’t. To prepare for a funeral scene, she stayed up all night in a cemetery. Of course, the Method has its price. During one violent vignette, Travolta belted Winger so hard he chipped off half of one of her teeth. “I thought I was going to pass out from pain,” she remembers. (It was later capped.) The injury didn’t impede their on-screen smooching. “It got to the point where we were loose enough to practice kissing,” she relates. “That was fun.”

What was affected during filming, though, was Debra’s three-year relationship with actor Andrew (Casey’s Shadow) Rubin. “We’re splitsville,” she shrugs. Last October Debra left their dual quarters, a Laurel Canyon apartment and a secluded house north of Malibu, and this month set up by herself in a one-bedroom pad in Westwood. “Every time I move into an apartment, my father comes over and checks the dead bolts,” she reports of Robert Winger, who once sold burglar alarms. He and her office manager mother, Ruth, raised her, Debra admits, to be a “Jewish American Princess.” When she was 6, the family moved from Cleveland to the San Fernando Valley. Despite appearing in some school plays, Debra shied away from the idea of acting as a career. After finishing high school she went to Israel in 1972, applied for citizenship and joined the army for three months, “totally out of curiosity, after hearing so much about Israel when I was growing up. But I didn’t like it there.” Instead, she returned to the U.S. and at Cal State (Northridge) majored in sociology. “I was going to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents, of which I was one.”

Next came what Winger believes was the watershed event of her life. While working as, of all things, a troll at Magic Mountain amusement park, she fell off a truck and suffered a head injury. “One side of my body was paralyzed, and my optic nerve was damaged,” recalls Debra, who spent a year in and out of hospitals. At times she was completely blind and was once on the verge of suicide. “Poetically, I look at my accident as a huge hunk of grace which propelled me into doing what I wanted to do.”

The new Debra plunged into acting, first doing TV commercials (“I felt like a prostitute”) and then repertory theaters around the valley. Working on the Wonder Woman series was no fun after “I saw that you get into the kind of image trip that really gives me stomach cramps.” A “former fatty,” Debra also has struggled with her weight and once packed 135 pounds on her 5’4″ frame. She switched into movies with Thank God It’s Friday and last year’s French Postcards before the call came for Urban Cowboy.

Now Winger is fighting off fame and being wooed by directors from Antonioni to Spielberg. But so far she is holding out. Instead, she writes poetry on index cards and remains a resolutely antiglamorous lady who, say, leaving a restaurant, dripped taco sauce on her pants leg. “Oh, God,” she groaned when it happened. “Could you imagine what John Derek would do to me for this?”


If Madolyn Smith’s mother had followed the lyrical advice of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, she never would have let her daughter grow up to be a cowgirl. Indeed, Madolyn was acting at USC when mentor-in-residence John (The Paper Chase) Houseman persuaded Urban Cowboy director Jim Bridges to catch Madolyn’s performance on campus in All’s Well that Ends Well. So it seemed to end well indeed when Madolyn was subsequently cast as the Ewing-esque Houstonian who shows Travolta a bit of uptown class. The problem is that, while Debra Winger suddenly became a hot property, Madolyn, 23, wonders if her phone is out of service. “I’m getting anxious,” she admits. “There’s a fire under my tail.”

Of course, Madolyn freely acknowledges that “my part was more presence than performing.” She’s not knocking her co-star. “I loved what Debra did in the movie,” she says. “And we had a wonderful time getting to know each other.” Madolyn does allow, however, that “once we started working there was a great distance. Debra believed very much in living her part. I didn’t need to be that way. The natural order of things was that a great tension grew.”

Like Winger, Smith hadn’t seen Texas before she went to audition for Urban Cowboy. Unlike Winger, she limited her research to visiting a few places in town “to get a very simple picture of what this girl is about. I didn’t want to do a cliché rich bitch from Texas. The frustrating thing is people think that’s who I really am. My reaction is to prove I’m not.”

In the end, she became so close to some rodeo bull riders that she flew back to Houston after filming to spend Thanksgiving with them. “I have a thing about cowboys,” she admits. “When I’m with them I feel I would like to live like that all the time.” As for Travolta, Madolyn says he’s “very sweet,” especially when he flew her back to L.A. on his private jet, “but we’re not very close and don’t socialize.”

Madolyn Story Smith was born on the Sandia Army Base in Albuquerque, N. Mex., the daughter of a retired colonel who now owns a solar energy company and a “hardworking” housewife mother who cared for Madolyn and her four siblings. The family’s military transfers took her to Hawaii, Kansas, Virginia, Maryland, Thailand and back to Albuquerque. “I don’t feel like a native of any place,” she observes. She had acted since second grade and headed for a musical comedy specialty at USC. Her first show was Oklahoma! with fellow student LeVar (Roots) Burton, and she still longs for Broadway. Madolyn paid her tuition by working as a waitress, and as a senior won the Jack Nicholson Drama Scholarship. “He doesn’t know me from Adam,” she says, “but someday I’d love to work with him. God, is he something!”

Back home in West Hollywood, Madolyn lives in a one-bedroom condo-with-pool that she shares with Scott Barton, a part-time gym instructor and airline steward. “He’s my dearest friend, but not my boyfriend,” emphasizes Madolyn, who insists the arrangement is purely economic. Like Debra, Madolyn finds her Cowboy earnings are “running out” in part because she was burned investing in the silver futures market. “I’ve been down before,” she adds. “It’s not that frightening.”

For now, Madolyn uses her 10-speed bike or Mazda 808 to get to dance class and the gym. “I’m ripe for romance but terribly discriminating,” she winks, adding that marriage and family are for the future. Fame she dismisses as a fantasy. “The only thing I want now is a lot of work,” she asserts. “The rest of my life can stay just the way it is.”