A Hero From Hamtramck
He is the strongest man in Hollywood. A man who carries trunks of trees on his head and doesn’t think anything of it. He is... a hero from Hamtramck
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If life were like a Saturday-matinee serial, the further adventures of Vincent Markowski would have had a more upbeat, action-packed ending. However, this was Hamtramck, not Hollywood, and Markowski — better known to the world as Tom Tyler — had come to his sister’s large frame house on Moenart Street to suffer a slow, tedious death. Only 50, the celluloid action hero and Western movie actor was afflicted by a rare and frightening disease that had already cost him his looks, his marriage, and his livelihood.
As the eponymous hero of the Adventures of Captain Marvel — widely regarded as one of the finest serials ever produced — Tyler had played a character dubbed “The World’s Mightiest Mortal.” The irony probably was not lost on Tyler’s sister, Katherine Slepski, who, at the end, was helping to bathe and dress him. “He was a little grumpy, a little demanding,” says Ray Slepski, who surrendered his bedroom to his ailing uncle. “But who could blame him? Here he’d been this big, strong, handsome guy, a champion weightlifter, and now his features are distorted, his hands are like claws, he’s helpless. It really was pathetic to see him in that condition. It was hard to believe that just a few years earlier he’d been a matinee star.”
Film Buffs generally consider the dozen chapters of the Captain Marvel saga the apex of Tyler’s screen career, a 30-year stretch that spanned the period of silent films through the early years of television. All told, Tyler appeared in seven serials and more than 150 movies, including minor roles in such classics as Gone With the Wind and Stagecoach. He associated with some of the greatest names of Hollywood’s golden age, both on and off the set, and had a fling with one of the era’s legendary actresses. He was a versatile, hard-working, and well-liked professional who thought no role was beneath him. As his illness advanced and his film career dried up, he took dozens of bit parts on such popular TV shows as The Lone Ranger, The Roy Rogers Show, and Sky King. One of his last roles was in a never-aired pilot directed by the infamous Ed Wood.
Despite his production, Tyler is easily overlooked today as just one more obscure laborer in the dream factory of American cinema. “The feeling persists that with creative and intensive guidance, the attributes of Tom Tyler, buried as they were under an avalanche of neglect and carelessness, could have been transformed into a screen image approaching the highest plateaus,” film historian Don Miller decided. “That it didn’t happen is too bad.”
Markowski was born Aug. 9, 1903, near Port Henry, N.Y. Despite the Polish-sounding surname, the family actually was Lithuanian. Vincent’s immigrant father and older brother, both named Frank, worked in the nearby iron ore mines. In September 1918, Frank Markowski Sr., moved the entire family to Hamtramck and got an assembly-line job at Ford. They lived in a two-family flat on Mitchell.
Vincent, one of five siblings, briefly attended Catholic schools, but like many teenagers of the era, he dropped out to enter the workforce. Factory jobs were plentiful in industrial Detroit, and he soon found one. During this period, he became interested in weightlifting, and spent much of his free time chiseling his already sturdy 6-foot-2 frame. One weekend, he was competing in a bodybuilding contest at the Martha Washington Theatre on Joseph Campau when a talent agent suggested he try his luck in Hollywood. With his younger sister, Molly, lending him some money, Vincent and a neighborhood friend, Emil Karkoski, set off for California in the summer of 1923.
The pals worked their way across the country until Karkoski changed his mind in Denver. Vincent continued to Hollywood, where he found a cheap apartment and began making the rounds of studios, scrounging for work. His first part was as an extra in a 1924 movie called Three Weeks, after which he appeared in such minor roles as an Indian in Leatherstocking and a chariot driver in Ben-Hur. These early roles owed more to his muscular torso than anything, as much of the time he appeared on screen bare-chested. During this period, he usually was credited as Bill Burns.
Between acting gigs, he worked day-labor jobs, took modeling assignments — sometimes posing in the nude for sculptors and painters — and continued to hone his impressive physique through weightlifting and acrobatics. He developed into one of the top lifters in the country in the 1920s. Competing as a member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, he was the national amateur heavyweight champion in 1928. He weighed 200 pounds, had a 45-inch chest (unexpanded), a 32-inch waist, and was the first American to lift more than 300 pounds in the clean-and-jerk, a lift that put a premium on brute strength. He qualified for the 1928 Olympics, but the United States decided against sending a squad of lifters to Amsterdam. His disappointment wasn’t as keen as it might have been, because by then he was an established silent-movie star.
His break came when Joseph P. Kennedy — the father of the future president — decided cheap Westerns were the easiest way to make money for his FBO studio, the forerunner of RKO Pictures. He wasn’t the only movie mogul to seize upon the genre as an attractive option to the more expensive feature-length productions. According to film historian David Robinson, the formulaic hourlong “B” Western was the “perfect vehicle for the producer working on a shoestring budget who could not afford a sound stage or construct lavish sets.” All a studio had to do was “hire a few actors, rent a half-dozen horses and travel a few miles outside Los Angeles, where nature provided the kind of spectacular scenery that could give an extra boost to even the most shaky productions.”
Few people understand the genre better than Bobby Copeland of Knoxville, Tenn., who has a collection of about 1,500 Westerns and has written or contributed to dozens of books on the subject. The 75-year-old film buff fondly recalls a childhood spent inside neighborhood theaters, cheering on the guys in the white hats.
“I think the real appeal was that the hero always had good, strong values,” he says. “He didn’t drink, swear, or carouse. If he hit a guy, he’d pick him up afterwards. Instead of killing the villain, he’d shoot the hat off his head. For kids who didn’t really have a role model — and that includes me — these figures were like your father, preacher, and Sunday-school teacher, all rolled into one. You’d come out of the theater feeling like your soul had just been cleansed.”