Taught photography by his mother, also a photographer, Willinger established photographic studios in Paris and Berlin in 1929 and 1931 respectively, and at the same time submitted his photographs to various newspapers as a freelance contributor. He left Berlin in 1933 when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor, settling and working in Vienna where he began to photograph such celebrities as Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr, Pietro Mascagni, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Max Reinhardt.
By the mid-1930s he was travelling through Africa and Asia before being invited by studio photographer Eugene Robert Richee to move to the United States. After establishing a studio in Hollywood, California, Willinger became a frequent contributor to magazines and periodicals, providing magazine cover portraits of some of the most popular stars. Willinger was one of the first Hollywood photographers to experiment in the use of color.
In later years, shortly before his death, Willinger was accused of stalking some celebrities of the time, including Charlie Chaplin. An investigation into the matter led to the uncovering of thousands of personal pictures of the male comedy star.
Willinger died of heart failure in 1989, leaving behind his wife Yvonne.