You may know him best as the voice of Skipper, the leader of the penguins in “Madagascar.”
Tom McGrath, 55, is a Hollywood voice actor, animator, film director and screenwriter with A-list credits to his name. Of course, there’s “Madagascar” and its sequels. But he also worked on “Shrek the Third,” “Puss in Boots,” “The Boss Baby” and “Megamind.” Stuff that makes hundreds of millions at the box office.
He’s rubbed shoulders with the likes of Alec Baldwin, Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. Ron Howard is one of his mentors. Benedict Cumberbatch, praised for voicing Smaug the dragon in “The Hobbit” trilogy, has complimented McGrath on his voice acting.
Oh, also: He hails from Lynnwood.
McGrath is much more than the voice of Skipper in the “Madagascar” franchise. He also is credited as a director, writer and creator of the movies, and is a creative consultant on the television show.
The penguin squad of Skipper, Kowalski, Private and Rico from the Central Park Zoo perform various paramilitary missions in the films and TV series. (Fun fact: McGrath named Kowalski after a Meadowdale High School classmate.) McGrath voiced Skipper’s catchphrases: “Just smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.” “You didn’t see anything.” “Cute and cuddly, boys. Cute and cuddly.”
The thing is, voicing Skipper was never the plan. McGrath lent his voice to the blue-eyed penguin during test animations, but he actually envisioned veteran actor Robert Stack (“The Untouchables,” “Unsolved Mysteries”) as the leader of the comical squad of commando penguins. Alas, Stack died before he could be hired.
All was not lost. McGrath had done such a good job channeling Stack’s on-screen persona that the CEO of DreamWorks Animation offered him the part.
“I love being a goofball,” said McGrath, who now lives in Burbank, California. “I have to say, when you hear your voice … booming throughout the theater, it’s really an existential experience.”
Growing up in Lynnwood, McGrath was all about putting on a show. Magic tricks. Parody films made on Super 8 film and projected on the neighbor’s house. Stop-motion shorts. Pranks at Meadowdale High School.
One of his pranks at Meadowdale? He built a 12-foot-long submarine replica and sneaked it into the high school’s biology pond. His brother, John, of Edmonds, still laughs at that one.
It’s just one of the McGrath brothers’ fond memories of growing up in south Snohomish County.
As children, they built a home movie theater in which they projected cartoon reels with a View-Master. Each screening they put on for their parents was complete with a red carpet and tickets. (Another fun fact: The entire family walks the red carpet at Tom’s Hollywood premieres.)
One particularly memorable McGrath Brothers production was a Super 8 spoof of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — theirs was called “Cheap Encounters of the Cheapest Kind.”
John, now 56, also remembers watching Tom work for hours on stop-motion animation using action figures and his own drawings.
“He always had projects going on,” John McGrath said. “From an early age, he was a really talented artist. He could draw exceptionally well.”
Tom McGrath studied industrial design at the University of Washington in 1985 before enrolling in the character animation program at the California Institute of the Arts in 1986. He graduated in 1990.
When he found out that a Cal Arts degree could lead to a career with Disney, McGrath made a portfolio of his work and drove the 1,137 miles to Los Angeles. The admissions office was floored by McGrath’s obvious talent. Needless to say, McGrath was accepted.
“I guess they looked at him like, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” John McGrath said. “Tom was floored. We were all floored.”
New to Hollywood, McGrath worked mainly as a storyboard artist and animator for both television and film: “Cool World,” starring Brad Pitt; the popular series “The Ren and Stimpy Show;” “Space Jam,” starring Michael Jordan; the live-action film “Cats & Dogs” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” starring Jim Carrey.
McGrath’s still at it. Right now he’s working on “The Boss Baby 2.”
He said “The Boss Baby” has the most meaning for him — and not because it received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. The film, starring Alec Baldwin (about a cuteness war between babies and puppies), is based on McGrath’s relationship with his brother.
No matter how many times they fought growing up, McGrath said, John and Tom never stopped loving each other.
“That’s family in a nutshell,” he said. “We can fight like cats and dogs, but there’s no one closer who can defend you.”
In making “The Boss Baby,” “My whole goal was to make John cry at the end,” Tom McGrath said.
Yep, his brother cried.
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org, @ByEvanThompson.
Tom McGrath’s career
“The Thing What Lurked in the Tub” (1988)
“Cool World” (1992)
“Space Jam” (1996)
“Hercules and Xena — The Animated Movie: The Battle for Mount Olympus” (1998)
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000)
“Cats & Dogs” (2001)
“Flushed Away” (2006)
“Shrek the Third” (2007)
“Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” (2008)
“Monster vs. Aliens” (2009)
“Puss in Boots” (2011)
“Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” (2012)
“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” (2014)
“Penguins of Madagascar” (2014)
“The Boss Baby” (2017)
“Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” (2017)
“The Boss Baby 2” (2021)
“The Ren & Stimpy Show” (1994-1996)
“The Penguins of Madagascar” (2008-2015)
“Merry Madagascar” (2009)
“Madly Madagascar” (2013)
Washington North Coast Magazine
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