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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FBO held a casting call in 1925 and was impressed by the young man from Hamtramck. The muscular city slicker was asked if he could ride a horse. “I said ‘yes’ and didn’t even gulp,” he recalled later. “I contacted a friend who was an expert horseman and it wasn’t long before I was riding very well.” An FBO executive flipped through a phone book and came upon the name Tyler. Coupled with Tom — borrowed from Tom Mix, the most popular Western star of the time — Markowski became Tom Tyler.
Barely 22, Tyler was now the lead in a series of quickie Westerns. His first FBO effort, Galloping Gallagher, did well in theaters. Publicity photos for the picture showed the new star in a bathing suit, hoisting a huge piece of wood above his head. The accompanying caption read: “This is Tom Tyler, the strongest man in Hollywood, who carries trunks of trees on his head and doesn’t think anything of it.” By the following year, movie exhibitors considered him one of the country’s top box-office draws. He was “a likable hero with a low-key personality on screen,” one critic wrote.
Tyler rarely made it back to Hamtramck, though family members visited him on several occasions. His brother Frank came to California and decided to stay. He found a studio job as a gaffer and best boy, spending most of his career with Columbia Pictures. Tired of being asked why his and Tom’s names were different, he changed his last name to Tyler, too.
By 1930, Tyler had worked in more than 40 movies, most of them low-budget Westerns. All were silent films. His transition to “talkies” was rocky. Screenwriter Oliver Drake recalled in his autobiography: “When sound came in, things were tough for me in the picture business, but my friend Tom Tyler was having it much tougher. He had a slight Lithuanian accent and it seemed no one wanted him for a talkie. He had to move out of his house in Beverly Hills, sold his car, and was slowly going down the drain.” Drake put Tyler in touch with a voice coach, who “liked Tom very much and continued coaching him over the next few months, long after Tom’s money ran out.”
With his tremendous work ethic, Tyler soon rebounded, appearing in 15 movies in the 1931-33 period. He also worked in five serials for Universal Studios, stepping out of his established cowboy persona to play lead roles as a pilot, an African big-game hunter, and a Canadian Mountie.
Back home, nobody cared whether he appeared in a feature or a two-reeler, a silent film, or a talkie. He was “Hamtramck boyhood’s greatest movie hero,” as he was described when attending a New Year’s Eve party for 40 boys at St. Ann’s Community House in 1931. “His prowess and horsemanship won for him a place in the hearts of millions of kids throughout the country,” a local paper reported, “but no group of youngsters accorded his pictures a greater reception than those in his own hometown.
“His appearance at the party was held as a surprise for the boys, ranging in age from 8 to 15. When he entered the dining room, they immediately recognized him and sent up a tremendous cheer. Tyler had dinner with them and then addressed the assemblage. In his talk, he referred to them as pals and, in Popeye fashion, advised them to drink their milk. They complied with a toast of milk to him.”
Three years later, Tyler again came home for Christmas, making personal appearances at midnight shows at the Martha Washington Theatre. “If I had known I was going to stay two weeks,” he told the Hamtramck Citizen, “I would have brought my wonder horse, ‘Lightning,’ with me.”
On screen, a cowboy’s chief love interest was supposed to be his horse. In the real world, Tyler never lacked for female companionship. His sister Katherine remembered that when he was growing up in Hamtramck, girls who passed by on the sidewalk would always glance back.
In California, he had his choice of starlets. At one point in the mid-1930s, he had an affair with the glamorous German-born actress Marlene Dietrich. Actress Marion Schilling, who worked with Tyler, considered him “a handsome, big mass of muscle” and a conscientious actor she would have liked to know better. He was “very quiet” on the set, and she thought she knew why: “He was in the midst of a torrid love affair with Marlene Dietrich and during the day was probably in ‘recovery.’ ”
On Sept. 8, 1937, following a five-month romance, Tyler married actress Jeanne Martel in Los Angeles. The violet-eyed brunette, described as a Joan Crawford look-alike, had lived in Detroit for a time when she was a girl. She was several years younger than Tyler, who told the press he was “mainly interested in Jeanne as the grand wife she is and not the great star she might some day become.” He called her “Punky.”