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

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.”

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.”

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.

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 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.

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.
“Then finally: ‘Can you act?’ That was third.”
Westerns started to fade in popularity after World War II. But then they gained new life with the advent of TV, whose airings of old B-movie favorites recharged the genre and inspired scores of shows. As the host of Bill Kennedy’s Showtime on CKLW from 1956 to 1969 (which became Bill Kennedy at the Movies when it ran on WKBD from 1969 to 1983), Kennedy occasionally aired some of the low-budget sagebrush sagas in which he had appeared. In Silver City Bonanza, for example, he played the villainous Monk Monroe, who knifed a blind man to steal his land, but then had to contend with the victim’s vengeful seeing-eye dog. “They paid me $400 for each dogfight scene,” he said, “but only $350 for my acting. That should have told me something.”

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.”

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