Tom Tyler: The Original Captain Marvel

We are shocked to notice that we have mentioned actor Tom Tyler (Vincent Markowski or Markauskas, 1903-1954) no fewer than eight times on Travalanche. His is a quotidian, eminently forgettable screen name, after all. But Tyler had numerous claims to fame that definitely make him worth knowing about, some of which I’ll front load here to entice you to stay with me. 1) He was the first person ever to play Captain Marvel, in the 1941 serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel. He also played the less remembered superhero The Phantom in a 1943 serial; 2) He played the Mummy in Universal’s 1940 The Mummy’s Hand; 3) During his lifetime, he was most widely known as a star of B movie westerns, for just about all of the studios that produced them; and 4) He was also in lots of famous classic films of the “A” picture caliber, though in much smaller roles.

A sturdy Lithuanian from Michigan, Tyler worked in the Merchant Marine and lumberjacked as a young man. But the limelight called. He dabbled in prize fighting and weightlifting, and then started working in silent westerns as an extra, stunt man, and prop supervisor in the mid ’20s. He was one of the charioteers in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur! That same year, FBO (precursor to RKO) signed him to star in a series of westerns. His early leading ladies included Jean Arthur Nora Lane, and Ethlyne Clair; later ones (in the talkie era) included Barbara Weeks, Betty Mack, and Margaret Nearing. Tyler continued to be a star in B movies and serials (with varying fortunes) for the next couple of decades, spending time at Mascot, Monogram, Reliable, Republic, Universal, Columbia etc etc. The culmination of this period may be said to be his role in the last 13 films in Republic’s Three Mesquiteers series.

During one dry spell in 1938 he emulated his namesake Toby Tyler and starred in Wallace Brothers Circus for a season!

As for the major films in which he had smaller supporting roles, they include six for John Ford: Stagecoach (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), They Were Expendable (1945), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and What Price Glory (1952). That would already been impressive, but some of his other credits include roles in Gone with the Wind (1939), The Westerner (1940), Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates (1941), The Talk of the Town (1942), The Dude Goes West (1948), Red River (1948), I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949), Samson and Delilah (1949). His last role on the big screen was in Cow Country (1953) with Edmond O’Brien.

In his last years he worked a lot in television, on such unsurprising shows as The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, The Roy Rogers Show, and The Gene Autry Show. By the end of his life arthritis has made it very difficult to work apart from the least demanding of scenes. He developed scleroderma, and finally died of a heart attack at the young age of 50.