Ray Felton has spent his whole life acting.

Notwithstanding a long work resume that includes everything from shoveling hot slag in a Pennsylvania mill for $2.23 an hour to selling books, magazines and houses to motivational speaking, Felton jokes that he has never been suited to do anything but act.

It took 30 years, he said, but he's finally doing what he loves full time.

"I always tried to fit in as a blue-collar worker at [the] mill, and people kept telling me I should do what I do best--just be myself and act," Felton said. "I love it. I get to be somebody different almost every day of the week."

Although few of his roles have been on the big screen, the 52-year-old Leesburg resident enthusiastically describes the parts he has had in stage plays and television series.

"Oh, this one's going to be great," he said, referring to his upcoming movie, "Cecil B. Demented," a satire on filmmaking starring Melanie Griffith. Felton will play a theater owner.

His only worry: growing back his mustache before he is due on the set next week in Baltimore. After all, Felton's been told, it's mainly his looks that have gotten him acting gigs.

"I have to match a lot of actors to real people, and Ray just looked right," said Jeff Lindquist, casting director of New Dominion Pictures in Suffolk, Va., who hired Felton for a Discovery Channel show called "The New Detectives."

"I needed a detective, and he [Felton] looked like one," Lindquist.

Felton will appear in an episode Tuesday as Edward Tarney, a Montgomery County police detective. The drama tells the story of Laura Houghteling, a 23-year-old Harvard graduate who disappeared from her mother's Bethesda home in October 1992. Her body was found, eight months later, in a shallow grave nearby.

The show will portray how Tarney and other officers gathered forensic evidence. Although no blood was visible in Houghteling's bedroom, technicians found abundant traces of it on her mattress by using a special chemical compound that detects blood.

"That's where I come in," said Felton. "They probably won't even use my voice, but you'll see me walking through the woods, looking."

Investigators in the Houghteling case found a bloody pillowcase from her bed in woods near her mother's house. A fingerprint on the pillowcase matched that of Hadden I. Clark, a homeless man who had worked as a gardener for the family. Clark pleaded guilty in June 1993 to second-degree murder and led police to Houghteling's body. Now 47, he is serving a 30-year prison sentence in that case and is currently on trial, again in Montgomery County, in connection with the 1986 disappearance of 6-year-old Michele Dorr. Her body has never been found.

Playing cops and robbers is nothing new to Felton.

In an episode of TV's "Homicide: Life on the Street" last year, he played a restaurant owner and chef whose partner was murdered; on "America's Most Wanted," he was a bank robber.

Felton, whose father was a Pennsylvania Railroad freight conductor, studied speech and drama at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. After graduation, he tried--but failed--to get into law school. "My grandma said, 'Maybe someday he'll be a big actor,' to which my grandpa would reply, 'Maybe someday he'll be a big bum,' " Felton recalled.

He bounced from job to job, including stints as a publisher's sales representative and a real estate agent. On the side, he did theater.

"He's a wonderful actor," said Carlyn Davis, casting director of a Falls Church company who has known Felton for years. "You get a lot of pompous actors in show biz, and he's not one of them. He's witty, and he's willing to work hard."

Felton admits that acting can be a tough business to break into, and he attributes much of his success to his home-grown public relations blitz. His portfolio is stocked with glossy copies of "The Call Sheet," an occasional fan club newsletter that he publishes himself.

"You gotta make it happen," he said, flipping through pictures of himself as a gangster with his bulldog, Belvedere. "The most difficult thing can be when you put your stuff out there and then nothing happens."

CAPTION: Felton in his Leesburg home. He will play a Montgomery County detective on the Discovery Channel show "The New Detectives" Tuesday night. "I needed a detective, and he looked like one," said a casting director.

CAPTION: Longtime Leesburg resident Ray Felton got the acting bug 30 years ago.

CAPTION: Ray Felton, with his dog, Belvedere. They both had work as extras in the 1996 movie "My Fellow Americans," but their scene was cut. "You get a lot of pompous actors in show biz, and he's not one of them," said a casting director.