Willie grew up in Whitley Bay where the family moved and attended the Whitley Bay and Monkseaton Grammar school. The family lived at several addresses, mostly in Lish Avenue. Their last residence was at No. 18. Willlie became an apprentice draughtsman at Swan Hunter Wallsend, in 1918, but attended evening classes at Rutherford College and matriculated for London University in 1920. The Fisher family left Whitley Bay, however, for the newly-established Soviet Union in 1921, where Genrikh died in 1935.
He narrowly escaped the Great Purges. Besides being from England, a close relative had been accused of being a Trotskyite. He escaped prosecution but was dismissed from the NKVD in 1938. During the Second World War he again trained radio operators for clandestine work behind German lines.
As cover for his illegal residence, he opened an artist's studio in the Orvington Studios in Brooklyn, although he had only minimal artistic talent. He represented himself as a retired photofinisher to the other artists with whom he came into contact. He made friends with a small group of younger men, mostly artists who shared his preferences for realistic art. He made no attempt to sell paintings, but continued working on his technique. His friends found him intelligent and knowledgeable, but somewhat secretive; for example, he never disclosed where he lived. He expressed admiration for the Russian artist Isaak Levitan.
His job as resident was to recruit and supervise agents who gathered intelligence information. He was given control of a pre-existing group of agents which included Lona Cohen and Morris Cohen, who are believed to have been the couriers for the Rosenberg, Greenglass, Fuchs nuclear spy ring, and who later operated in Britain as Peter and Helen Kroger.
Fisher is not known to ever have had any contact with the Communist Party USA. As a part of his legend, he sometimes fabricated stories about earlier days as a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest during the time of the Wobblies.
When Fisher was arrested, the hotel room and photo studio that he lived in contained multiple modern espionage equipment items: cameras and film for producing microdots, cipher pads, cuff links, hollow shaving brush, shortwave radios, and numerous "trick" containers.
Fisher was brought to trial in New York City Federal Court, indicted as a Russian spy, in October, 1957, on three counts:
Hayhanen testified against Fisher at the trial.
On October 25, 1957, the jury found Fisher guilty on all three counts. Judge Mortimer W. Byers sentenced him, sentences to be served concurrently, on November 15, 1957, count one: 30 years' imprisonment; count two: 10 years' imprisonment and $2,000 fine; count three: 5 years' imprisonment and $1,000 fine.
On February 10, 1962, he was exchanged for Central Intelligence Agency U-2 pilot Gary Powers and an American student Frederic Pryor, at the Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam, Germany. After his return to Moscow he continued to work as a trainer for the KGB and was rewarded with the Order of Lenin. Fisher is said to have despised Kim Philby.
Rudolf Abel was the alias Fisher adopted on his arrest which signaled his capture to the Soviet Government. The alias was the name of another, less well known NKVD agent, who had once shared a flat with Fisher. The real Abel was born in Latvia in 1900 and died in 1955, but not much seems to be publicly known about his career.
Willie Fisher died of lung cancer in 1971 and was buried next to his father in the Donskoy monastery in Moscow. His daughter reported that his last words would have been in English: „Don't forget that we are Germans anyway“. His gravestone displays both of his names. A group of KGB veterans celebrated his centenary at the graveside in 2003.