Behind the counter of a Belmont Shore-area video store in Long Beach, Bob Telford watched a tape of the family drama, "Where the Red Fern Grows."
On the video screen, a lanky, silver-haired stationmaster was giving a boy two puppies. As the boy laughed and hugged his new pets, the stationmaster smiled.
So did Telford. He was watching himself on the screen, playing the stationmaster in the 1974 film. He owns and operates the video store with his wife and daughter and rents the movie along with several other films in which he has had parts.
Telford, 66, has had bit parts in several movies and dozens of television shows. He has a recurring role as a Southern lawyer in the syndicated courtroom drama, "The Judge." He is perhaps best known as Uncle Sam in the Kellogg's Corn Flakes television commercial.
Most customers at his video store don't make the connection between the face on the screen and the face behind the counter.
"They've seen me, and they don't know it," he said. "You can watch somebody on the screen and see them the next day and not know it. It is totally unexpected. You expect to see someone across the breakfast table, not in a movie."
Even when he points out his roles to customers after they have watched his work, they still do not recall seeing him. That can be an advantage.
"If I tell them that I'm in it when they return the tape, they might want to see it again to see if they can spot me," Telford said with a wry grin.
Seen on TV
Besides "Red Fern," the store also rents the 1981 film "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" and last year's "Two Moon Junction" in which Telford had roles.
On some occasions, he is spotted on broadcast television.
"It's really fun," said Telford's wife, Jodi, adding that customers will come in and say, "I was at home and we were watching TV when my wife said, 'There's Bob Telford.' "
Telford's face is probably more familiar to members of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Long Beach, where he is active in the congregation's drama activities.
Lately he has been directing at the Long Beach Community Playhouse and Studio Theatre and performing at the International City Theater at Long Beach City College. He played the role of Claude in an city theater production of "Autumn Elegy" last month.
Local readers know Telford from his theatrical column, "Critical View" in the Long Beach News, a weekly shopper, in which he reviews plays in the Los Angeles area.
Based on Novel
It was the film "Red Fern," which was based on the children's novel, that got him to act in movies, television and, eventually, to open a video store.
In the early 1970s, he had been directing plays at regional theaters in Tulsa, Okla., when Norman Tokar, who was directing "Red Fern" on location in the area, offered him a part in the movie. It was in exchange for gathering 200 child actors for a casting call. Telford's wife and their children, Scott and Jennifer Ann, also got bit parts in the movie, which starred James Whitmore and Beverly Garland.
In 1979, he and his family moved to Long Beach, where his wife had a job as a housing official at Brooks College.
'Let's Go to Hollywood'
"We, as a family, decided, 'Let's go to Hollywood,' " he said. "So I said, 'Let's change.' We came out here completely new."
He found work scarce when in 1980 his union, the Screen Actors Guild, went on strike. One of the strike's disputes was over residuals for videocassettes.
"When walking the picket line at 20th Century Fox, I got to thinking, 'If this is going to be such a big deal, I might as well get into it on the ground level,' " he said.
So in 1981, he and his family opened Telford Video. Few homes in the area had VCRs then, and business was slow.
At first, his son Scott handled much of the operation, handing out flyers and waiting for customers.
Business Has Grown
"He was the guy who sat there all day long," Telford said. "He was embarrassed to tears. Nobody came."
But their store has grown to about 1,000 memberships, which allow discounts to regular customers. They also have increased their stock of video titles from 350 to about 2,000. Five years ago, they expanded their store space to 945 square feet.
They have much larger stores as competitors, including a chain outlet around the corner with a greater selection of titles, including blockbuster hit movies. But Telford Video has remained in business, he said, by renting select tapes, such as classics and critical hits, to regular customers.
Knowing the customers and their tastes has also helped business, said Jodi Telford, who manages the store.
"We get to know them," she said. "We have a customer who will come in and say, 'OK Jodi, you have 30 seconds, what do I watch tonight?' "