Born in 1924, his parents divorced when Hingle was still in his infancy (he never knew his father) and his mother supported the family by teaching jobs. By age 13 Hingle had lived in a dozen cities. He enlisted in the United States Navy in December 1941, and served on the destroyer USS Marshall during World War II. He earned a degree in radio broadcasting from the University Of Texas after the war on a tuba scholarship. He later returned to the military during the Korean War as a boilerman technician in the Navy.
Hingle married Alyce Faye Dorsey, on 1947 and had 3 children. The couple later divorced and Hingle married Julia Wright on 1979, with whom he had 2 children.
Studying acting with Uta Hagen at the Herbert Berghof Studios, he later was a strong disciple of the Actors Studio in New York. It was Elia Kazan, who gave Hingle his big screen break by casting him in the unbilled role of a bartender in "On The Waterfront" in 1954. The apex of his stage career was "J.B." by poet Archibald Macleish, with Hingle in the title role as a 20th-century Job.
It was during the run of "J.B." that Hingle took an accidental plunge down the elevator shaft of his New York apartment building, sustaining near-fatal injuries in the 54-foot fall. He was near death for two weeks (and lost the little finger of his left hand); his recovery took more than a year. This accident made him lost the lead role in the film "Elmer Gantry" in 1960, which could have been a turning point in his screen career and gave Burt Lancaster an Oscar Award.
Hingle was nominated for Broadway's 1958 Tony Award as best supporting or featured actor (dramatic) for "The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs.".
Later he played Warren Beatty's browbeating father in Kazan's "Splendor In The Grass" in 1961. Kazan also cast him as the original Goober on Broadway in "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof".
Hingle was a respected character actor, traditionally known for playing, judges, police officers, and other authority and paternal figures for most of his acting career. He is probably best known in recent times for playing Commissioner Gordon in the 1989 film "Batman" directed by Tim Burton, and its three sequels.
Hingle died at his home in Carolina Beach, North Carolina, of myelodysplasia on January 3, 2009. His ashes were buried into the Atlantic Ocean.