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Penguins Rico, left, Private, Kowalski and the Skipper in "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," a sequel to the 2005 film "Madagascar."

It really wasn't Tom McGrath's intention to steal the first "Madagascar" movie out from under his better-known co-stars Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and David Schwimmer.

In fact, it wasn't even his intention to be in the film.

"I'm probably the person you'd least expect to be in a big, hit movie ... much less an Oscar-nominated one," he said, laughing.

McGrath is a veteran animator and cartoon director (in addition to co-directing "Madagascar," he's also credited with episodes of television's "The Ren & Stimpy Show").

But in both "Madagascar" and its new sequel, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," he can be heard as the voice of Skipper, the leader of a resourceful group of penguins whose inventive, improvisational skills would put even TV's crafty MacGyver to shame.

As he recalls, "We were goofing around in the animation studio, and the next thing I know I'm in the movie as a character voice."

According to McGrath, animators often provide "temporary" character voices when the project is in the early stages. But then those tracks are typically replaced by voice actors.

For inspiration, he looked to actor Robert Stack, who was so memorable as the supremely confident Eliot Ness in television's "The Untouchables."

"He was definitely the person I thought of while I was doing the voice," McGrath said, adding that the veteran actor had been approached about voicing the character before his death in 2003.

"So, they were forced to keep me in the movie, which has been pretty good for my career," he continued. "No one recognizes me, either, which is even better."

McGrath is back as co-director and as the voice of Skipper in "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," a sequel that finds the New York Zoo animals lost in more unfamiliar surroundings.

While they're en route back to the United States, their plane crashes in an African wilderness reserve. However, that does give Alex the Lion (Stiller) a chance to reunite with his parents (voiced by Bernie Mac and Sherri Shepherd).

"Yes, it is a little bit like 'The Lion King.' But we did manage to put our own warped little spin on it," McGrath said from Denver, where he was helping promote the new film.

"And there's a lot more to it than just that," he added. "It turns out (Marty the Zebra) is not as unique as he thought he was. And love doesn't run smoothly for either (Melman the Giraffe) and (Gloria the Hippo)."

Rock, Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith return to voice those characters. McGrath called all of them "absolute professionals and a joy to work with."

He had similar praise for comedian/comic actor Mac, who died earlier this year. "Bernie was one of the most funny, most genuinely warm people you'll ever meet, especially in this industry.

"Just getting to meet Bernie was one of the high points in my career," McGrath continued. "And it was an honor to watch an early version of our movie with him and his grandchildren."

While he's been busy doing interviews for "Escape 2 Africa," McGrath won't be getting any down time in the near future. Nickelodeon is producing an as-yet-untitled animated series based on the film's popular penguin characters, and McGrath will again provide the voice of Skipper.

"(Co-director Eric Darnell) and I are overseeing the series, but we're not too involved with it. The voice work alone takes up so much of my time. It's really not as easy as it might seem," he explained.

McGrath was a little tight-lipped when asked about a third "Madagascar" movie, though that project has already been confirmed by trade paper reports.

"There are any number of stories we can tell with these characters, and a lot of places we can go, so I guess we'll see what happens," he said.

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