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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In the mid-1930s, Tyler was making upwards of $500 a week, a good income at a time when most Americans earned between $20 and $40 a week and a new car cost just a few hundred dollars. He bought an adobe Spanish-style house and proudly sent his family pictures of him posing in front of it. He was a homebody, enjoying gourmet cooking in the kitchen and cabinet-making in his basement workshop. He also took flying lessons. However, his film career stalled as he bounced around the smaller studios. The breakthrough roles went to others, like Gary Cooper in 1937’s The Plainsman and John Wayne in Stagecoach two years later. “The problem with actors who started with poverty-row studios is that they could never really get away from them,” Copeland says. In order to keep the cash coming in between roles, Tyler toured for several months as the headliner of the Wallace Brothers Circus, showing off his strongman abilities to Depression-era audiences eager to see a familiar film figure in person.
With a new wave of younger stars to compete against, including a slew of singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Tyler’s leading-man days in Westerns were over. He had to be content with second and third billing in Westerns and bit roles in larger budget films where he often didn’t receive screen credit. He’s easy enough to spot, though. He is the deputy handcuffing Casy (John Carradine) in The Grapes of Wrath, for example, and the boxing referee in Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates. He pops up for a few seconds midway through Gone With the Wind, playing the courtly Confederate officer on horseback who tells Scarlett O’Hara it’s time for her to move on during the evacuation of Atlanta. “Sorry, ma’am, we’ve got to march,” he says. Brief as Tyler’s appearance is, it was one of only 50 speaking roles in the three-and-a-half-hour movie, which had a cast of more than 2,500.
In Stagecoach, director John Ford gave Tyler a small but meaty role. This time, he was cast as a homicidal heavy, Luke Plummer. Near the end of the movie, Plummer is shot and killed by the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne. It’s no ordinary death, wrote Don Miller, with “Tyler ambling into the saloon after the gunfight, smiling benignly at the gathered tipplers, then keeling over.” Ten years later, Tyler appeared in another Ford-Wayne collaboration. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, he played a wounded corporal operated on by a surgeon inside a moving, dimly lit wagon. “It’s a tiny role, but I think it’s one of the best performances he ever gave,” Copeland says.
During the intervening decade, Wayne had escaped from the wasteland of B Westerns to become a major big-screen star while Tyler had not. What was the difference?
Slepski, 73, Tyler’s nephew and godson who now operates a small tax-consulting business in Dearborn, says, “One of the things that hurt him a lot was his voice. It was kind of gravelly.” Tyler tended to over-enunciate his lines — an ongoing effort, some thought, to cover up his accent.
“He really wasn’t cut out for major studio work,” Copeland says. “He had a monotone voice … and he was pretty wooden in love scenes. Actually, despite his impressive physique, he really wasn’t that good of a physical actor. He could look awkward in fight scenes. He didn’t have major movie-star potential, however that’s defined. You know it when you see it. Tom Tyler didn’t have it — but his star still shone pretty brightly for a while.”
Luck, as always, also played a big part. In 1931, Tyler auditioned for the title role in a new Tarzan film being produced by MGM. Although his physique made him seemingly perfect for the part of the jungle hero and the studio publicly acknowledged he was the leading candidate, ultimately Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer Johnny Weissmuller was cast in the role. The film’s director explained Tyler was “not muscular enough.” The wooden Weissmuller became an instant worldwide star and grew rich off the Tarzan franchise, while Tyler was left to only imagine what he might have been able to accomplish in a loincloth instead of a Stetson.
In 1943, Tyler was 38 when his sinking career was rejuvenated by a Republic Studios serial based on the cartoon character, Captain Marvel. The red-clad superhero had debuted in Whiz Comics in early 1940 in response to the runaway success of Superman. As the story went, Captain Marvel really was Billy Batson, boy reporter. Upon saying the magic word, “Shazam!” Batson would be struck by a bolt of lightning and transformed into the superhero.
In the Adventures of Captain Marvel, Tyler warded off machine-gun bursts with his hands, hoisted giant trees, hurled a 20-ton engine, and fought off knife-wielding adversaries in remote Siam. Republic breathlessly hyped the action: “See the amazing feats of Captain Marvel. He flies like a bird! Bullets bounce off his body! He is the most awe-inspiring character ever seen on a screen! A one-man blitzkrieg!” As the big screen’s first flying hero, Tyler had to endure hours strung up in a harness and rigging while being filmed in front of a process screen, recalled stuntman Davie Sharpe. The “pain must have been almost unbearable,” he said. “Yet, he never let out a peep. What a pro!”
Casting Tyler as “the mighty muscleman” was considered “sheer genius” by one critic. “Visually suitable, he did such a great job and is so well remembered by fans for this very role that it is difficult to imagine any other actor in his place.” Said another: “Although primarily identified with Westerns, he was not so much a cowboy but simply a hero type.”
Filming the 12 chapters of the Adventures of Captain Marvel took 39 days over the winter of 1940-41. “At a large studio, you would have a trailer as a dressing room and a catering service for your meals,” says Frank Coghlan Jr., who played Billy Batson. “At Republic, you dressed where you could, had a box lunch, and fought off the ants.” For his work as Captain Marvel, Tyler was paid $250 a week. A few months later, Republic signed him to a two-year contract: $7,800 for the first year, $10,400 for the second.