ROCK FALLS — It didn’t take long for people to see that actor Frank Harts had something special.
He answered the casting call at the prestigious Julliard School. From there, it was on to a career that would put his face in front of millions, on stage, TV and film. Harts will next portray civil rights leader James Farmer in the upcoming Netflix drama “Rustin,” based on the life of gay rights advocate Baynard Rustin.
But before all that, there was Tabor Gymnasium stage at Rock Falls High School. This is where people would fill the bleachers and folding chairs to see their sons and daughters and friends and family perform. Some who saw Harts surely thought: “This kid is going to go somewhere one day.”
The 1998 RFHS graduate did go somewhere, but he never forgot where it all started, and in May he returned as the first member of the school’s Performing Arts Hall of Fame.
“I come from humble beginnings, like a lot of us, and when I first entered the halls of Rock Falls High School I had no idea that this was going to be the journey, that I would end up as the first artist to be inducted into a hall of fame,” Harts, 42, said. “I thought that maybe I was going to end up in some sort of trouble, but luckily I had a great support system of family and teachers who really helped me.”
Harts began performing in plays under adviser Peg Hoffmiller.
Then it was Judy Thome, the school’s longtime drama teacher, who saw Harts’ potential after only a few performances. Kelly Schaefer, who assisted Thome on several of the plays, saw something special, too.
The two teachers kept in touch with Harts long after high school. In fact, Harts’ detective character on Fox-TV’s drama “Prodigal Son,” JT Tarmel, is named in honor of Thome, who died in 2020.
“Judy Thome was the greatest drama teacher and coach to ever come out of here,” Harts said. “She’s the one who really gave me a shot as a freshman. I was just a new guy, but she thought I had the talent. So to receive this honor after our journey together for four years is really something.”
During Harts’ junior year, Schaefer stepped into the director’s chair for “One Dead Dolly.”
“I don’t know if he’s really changed that much,” Schaefer said. “He’s really that confident. As a high school student, he really was. It doesn’t surprise me to know where he’s at. When I talk to him, it’s the same personality, it really is. He’s just older.”
“I remember her being a bright spirit, dedicated to the craft,” Harts said of Schaefer. “She’s a fan of the arts, which to me, meant something.”
Among Harts’ other high school performances were “Aladdin,” “Talk about Entertainment,” “Dirty Dealings in Dixie,” “That’s Entertainment,” “The Cave Cat,” “Stefanie Hero,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Rip’s Historical Review,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “I’m Not Rappaport.” In acting competitions, Harts performed in dramatic duet acting and oratorical declamation speaking, and advanced to the state finals his junior year.
By his senior year, Harts was already studying for auditions at Julliard, and earning some yearbook-worthy praise, as “Most Likely to Succeed” and “Most Likely to be on a Talk Show.”
The stage wasn’t the only extra-curricular activity Harts found time for: Key Club, student council, American Legion’s Premier Boys State, baseball, football and wrestling.
Harts said his “head was always spinning in the spring” trying to do as much as he could.
“The way I grew as a performer was with the way I grew as a person: I was involved in every sport that I could be involved in,” Harts said. “How I grew was by just seeking out, being curious, and trying to find my way to the next step, as opposed to saying, ‘This is it, this is all there is.’ That’s fine, if that’s what you’re into, but I wanted more. I went out and kept looking for more, and therefore I grew along the way.”
Even when school was out, Harts wouldn’t take a summer break from theater. He often went to Timber Lake Playhouse in Mount Carroll, where he started out running the spotlight as an underclassman before appearing on stage for plays during his junior and senior years.
At Timber Lake, Harts met Chicago-based director and casting agent Jane Brody, who helped him discover Julliard.
“She’d tell me: ‘Make sure you read the New York Times every day, look at the arts section and look at a place called Julliard. Research it.’ I found out about it. I didn’t know a thing about Julliard. I researched it, fell in love with it, and said, ‘I got to get there” — and she gave him something else that helped him get there.
“She said, ‘I believe in you,’” Harts said.
When Harts learned about being inducted into the Performing Arts Hall of Fame, he found time to receive the honor in person.
Schaefer introduced Harts toward the event’s conclusion to a roaring ovation.
Even though Harts hadn’t been a student for 24 years, he felt right at home in the same place where he first fell in love with acting. During his speech he told students that nothing is impossible if they remain curious enough to explore the educational opportunities that the school provides.
Rock Falls is one of the few schools in northwest Illinois to have a chapter of the International Thespian Society. Troupe No. 3439 began in 1982. Other alumni have made it in regional theater, local theater and TV.
Harts accepted framed photos from his high school days, and he posed with several students, teachers and local dignitaries for photos of their own.
Schaefer was the driving force behind the Hall of Fame. With the help of a couple of thespian alumni, she started it for those who excelled in theater, band, choir and other performing arts.
“I’m happy to see that the arts are being recognized,” Harts said. “We all love sports, we all love athletes, but it’s good to recognize the contribution of the artists as well, and I’m glad to kick that off for the Hall of Fame.”
When he’s not performing, Harts also coaches other actors. This is what he tells them:
“You need to find your signature, special code, whatever it is that makes you, you. Latch onto it, something you’re passionate about — you have to be passionate about it — and hold onto it and ride it until the wheels fall off. Don’t let go. Don’t let anyone take you off of it. You have to be passionate about it, you have to love what you’re doing, and the only way to find the passion is to explore when you’re young. Once you explore, land on something and go for it, don’t just stay up in the clouds floating.”
When Harts shared that during the awards presentation, Schaefer flashed back to the budding young talent she saw all those years ago.
“What he said to the kids about grabbing onto something and not letting go, that’s what he did,” Schaefer said. “He just put himself out there. He put his all into everything.”