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
(page 4 of 4)
During that period, Tyler worked in several films in Republic’s long-running “Three Mesquiteers” series of B-Westerns. Each movie featured a trio of cowboys in a modern-day setting. While the actors (which at various times included John Wayne and Bob Steele) were interchangeable, the characters’ popularity remained intact until the series finally ran its course in 1943. At the end, Tyler was playing a character named Stoney Brooke and the trio was battling Nazis.
Tyler was signed by Columbia to portray the title character in The Phantom, another serial based on a comic-strip hero. Although 40, the trim actor wore his skin-tight purple costume as the masked “Ghost Who Walks” very well. The action this time took place in the wilds of Bengali and involved hidden treasure and the Lost City of Zoloz. The role required Tyler to wrestle a stuntman in a gorilla suit and to share screen time with canine sensation Ace the Wonder Dog, a German shepherd known as “Devil.” It was formulaic fare, but youngsters ate it up and critics were impressed. William C. Cline later wrote that Tyler bore “an almost uncanny” resemblance to his character. Noting the actor’s stilted speech and movements, Cline suggested Tyler was “the Gary Cooper of B films.”
Unlike millions of American males, Tyler didn’t serve in uniform in World War II. For one thing, he was too old. For another, by the middle 1940s he was starting to experience signs of the illness that would drive him out of movies and eventually kill him. His joint pain and
Tom Tyler’s many fans included local television host Bill Kennedy, who knew a thing or two about movies. Not only was the flamboyant “Detroit’s Hollywood connection” a TV movie host for 27 years, Kennedy also was a bit actor in scores of films and TV shows between 1941 and 1956.
Kennedy, who died in 1997, had a special affinity for “B” Westerns and their stars, having appeared in many horse operas himself. During his career, the Cleveland native was punched out by Gene Autry, rode with the Cisco Kid, and got the drop on Johnny Mack Brown.
“In those days, when you tried to get a job in a Western, you’d be asked three questions,” he once recalled. “No. 1: ‘Can you ride a horse?’ You have to be able to do your own fast mounts. They made those movies so fast — six, seven days — they didn’t tolerate any mistakes. You’ve got to make your mount and get the hell out of town, you know, with the posse following.
“No. 2: ‘Can you do your own fight scenes?’ You had to do your own fight scenes, because it saved them the cost of a stunt man.
swelling was initially diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. However, the true nature of his ailments would not be known for years, after his skin began tightening and his features grew deformed.
The superhero was suffering from an uncommon autoimmune disease called scleroderma. A few thousand new cases are diagnosed every year in the United States. Most of the afflicted are between the ages of 30 and 50. Three-quarters of the victims are women. Its cause remains unknown. Its severity can vary widely, but there’s no cure.
In addition to thickening of the skin, the disease also can wreak havoc with the victim’s internal organs. According to literature from the Scleroderma Foundation in Byfield, Mass., “The same process going on in the skin can enmesh the lungs in strands of scar tissue so dense that the victim struggles for air. Scar tissue in the esophagus makes swallowing painful and troublesome. In the digestive tract it inhibits the absorption of nutrients. Joints all over the body might throb with pain. Kidney involvement is particularly treacherous. It leads to high blood pressure and kidney failure.”
Tyler’s young wife could not live with his condition. “They got divorced,” Slepski says. “The story we always heard was that she ran off with some other guy.” Republic also dumped him, deciding not to renew his $200 weekly contract. For the rest of the 1940s and into the ’50s, Tyler determinedly tried to cobble together a living with a series of bit parts in film and TV while also fighting off the advances of his insidious disease. “Out of all the people I worked with, Tom loved his work the most,” Clayton Moore, television’s Lone Ranger, once said.
“Through all the ups and downs, and there were plenty of both for all actors, he never complained and was always upbeat.”
In addition to minor roles in such movies as They Were Expendable and Samson and Delilah, Tyler appeared in several TV shows, including Cowboy G-Men and Dick Tracy. Longtime Detroit movie host and former bit actor Bill Kennedy worked with Tyler on a couple of episodes of The Gene Autry Show. “We all knew that Tom was terminal and that Gene had hired him as a tribute,” Kennedy said in a 1997 interview. “We loved Gene for this gesture. Tom gave a superlative performance in both segments. We spent a week with Tom, and I got to talk to him about his fascinating career. He knew Doug Fairbanks, Valentino, John Gilbert, Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Chaplin. John Ford liked him, as well as many other famous directors of that time.”
Tyler’s last role was as Deputy Ed in Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid, a television pilot directed by Ed Wood. Wood, zealous and inept, would later gain posthumous fame as “the worst director of all time,” thanks to Johnny Depp’s portrayal of him in Tim Burton’s 1994 Oscar-winning biopic. The amateurish production was never picked up by a studio, which was just as well, considering Tyler’s health. While Wood went on to produce another unsold TV pilot, Dr. Acula, with another terminally ill actor, Bela Lugosi, Tyler left Hollywood for Hamtramck.
He arrived at his sister’s house one November day in 1952, virtually penniless. His nephew, then a young teenager, surrendered his bedroom — which was directly across from the only bathroom in the house — and moved into another one down the hall. “The bathroom had one of those steam cabinets, and he liked to use it,” Slepski says. “It seemed to help his hands and his skin a little.”
Ironically, just as Tyler was slipping into obscurity, many of his cowboy films were airing on television, introducing him to a new generation of viewers. Unfortunately, he had not secured any rights to his work, meaning he received no royalties. Like many actors, he had displayed little business sense. He and a partner once opened a realty office on North Vine in Hollywood and somehow managed not to make any money during Southern California’s real-estate boom. “One time, some guy wanted him to invest $1,100 in distributing a new lemon-lime soft drink, but he said no,” Slepski says. “The soft drink was 7 Up.”
In Hamtramck, Tyler spent most days in a chair in the sunroom, overlooking a grassy lot. In nice weather, he sometimes would sit on the front porch and patiently answer neighbors’ questions about Hollywood and its stars. He shuffled instead of walked, and his gnarled hands had a hard time gripping his favorite summer food, corn on the cob. His lips retracted and his teeth and eyes bulged. His skin was taut, discolored, and leather-like. “He was not pleasant to look at,” Slepski says. “It really took a toll on my mother. She was a saintly woman.
She never complained and neither did my dad. In those days, family took care of family. There never was any question that we would take care of Uncle Tom.”
On the morning of May 3, 1954, Tyler was taken by ambulance to St. Francis Hospital in Hamtramck. He had difficulty breathing. “He’d been looking a little better, so it actually was a shock when he died that night,” Slepski says. The official cause of death was a heart attack brought on by hardening of the arteries, caused by scleroderma. It took a while for the hospital to realize who the deceased patient was.
“Word got out that, hey, this was a movie actor,” Slepski says. “He was laid out at Wysocki Funeral Home on McNichols, a couple blocks from our house. It was a small funeral parlor, and I remember it being so crowded. People were coming from all over the country. Guys with cowboy hats, old actors, kids who saw him on TV, just a ton of people.”
A police escort was needed for the 65-car procession from the funeral home to Mount Olivet Cemetery, where Tyler was buried in the Markowski family plot. A stone marker bears an image of him in a cowboy hat.
Today, several generations removed from his physical prime, Tyler remains eternally young and invincible, thanks to the reissuing of several of his cowboy films and superhero serials on DVD. “It’s been, what, how many years since he died?” Slepski says. “People still call, they just want to talk about him. Some guy from Ohio’s going up north next week and he wants to stop by and say hello. It’s incredible, really, and I don’t mind. It’s good that he’s remembered.”