Tom Tyler, real name Vincent Markowski, was born in Port Henry, New York. He became a weightlifter who began his movie career in 1924 as an extra. Because of his tall, strong build, he easily fit in with the Western genre and he debuted as a leading man in Let’s Go, Gallagher (1925). By 1927, he had become a recognizable movie cowboy working under FBO (which later became RKO). As his fame grew, he successfully transitioned into talkies. But he never was a huge star nor did he make a lot of money. He mostly worked for poverty row studios such as Monogram, Monarch, Reliable, and Victory. These starring jobs usually paid around $150 a week.
Tyler was a likable B-movie cowboy, known for his laidback, natural screen presence. Like many of his peers, the studios paired him with a celebrity horse or canine and even tried him out as a singing cowboy. He even starred in movie serials. But none of his starring B movie westerns or serials from the 1930s stood out from the rest of the pack.
By 1936, larger studios began to take the Western genre more seriously and larger budget westerns began to slowly phase out the poverty row quickies. Naturally, Tyler’s career waned, forcing him to temporarily work as a headliner for the Wallace Circus in 1937 in order to stay relevant. That same year, he married one of his leading ladies Jeanne Martel (real name Ethel Pezholdt) at Glendale’s Forrest Lawn before Tyler traveled to Tennessee to finish a motion picture. Their marriage appears to have been short-lived.
Tyler received a boost in the late 1930s by playing a villain in Stagecoach (1939), as well as appearing in non-Western roles such as Gone With the Wind (1939), Brother Orchid (1940) and playing the Mummy in Universal’s The Mummy’s Hand (1940).
Around 1939, Republic hired him to play the comic book hero Captain Marvel in one of its most ambitious serials to date. Tyler was 37-years-old and during production, folks said that he was clumsy on the set, knocking over props and failing to pull his punches in time.
The Adventures of Captain Marvel was a tremendous box-office success for Republic and is still considered by many to be one of the best movie serials of all-time. Happy with their hit, Republic signed Tyler to appear in other serials.
But years of playing rough and tumble western heroes in $6,000 westerns continued to take its toll. After appearing as another serialized comic book superhero for Columbia, The Phantom (1943), Tyler’s career began to fade out Around this time, he was diagnosed with a disease called scleroderma, which prevented him from being an action hero.
Throughout the 1940s, Tyler worked steadily but the parts and pay were smaller. In some films, he was reduced to playing uncredited parts. On occasion, John Ford hired him for films like They Were Expendable and Rio Grande but the pay was not enough for medical treatment and maintaining a standard of living.
By 1952, he was broke and in ill health when he moved in with his sister in Hamtramck, a suburb of Detroit. Although his popularity once again serged after television began playing his old Westerns, Tyler had given up on stardom and did not capitalize on it. While in Hamtramch, he passed away from a heart attack with possible complications from scleroderma on May 3, 1954. He was 50-years-old.