Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of the Nickelodeon cartoon series “SpongeBob SquarePants,” died on Nov. 26. He was 57.
Hillenburg’s cause of death was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to reports. In March 2017, he announced his diagnosis.
“We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS,” Nickelodeon said in a statement to Variety.
“He was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family. Steve imbued ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere. His utterly original characters and the world of Bikini Bottom will long stand as a reminder of the value of optimism, friendship and the limitless power of imagination.”
The network also tweeted: “Today, we are observing a moment of silence to honor his life and work.”
“SpongeBob,” which premiered in 1999, became one of the most popular shows of the 2000s. As of late 2017, the show has generated some $13 billion in merchandising revenue for Nickelodeon, the New York Times previously reported.
Hillenburg attended Humboldt State University and received a degree in Natural Resource Planning and Interpretation, which had an emphasis on marine resources. Later, he became a marine biology teacher at the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point, California, Variety reported.
He then started a career in animation in 1987 and obtained a Master of Fine Arts in 1992. From 1993 to 1996, he worked on “Rocko’s Modern Life,” a television series about an Australian wallaby.
But it was “SpongeBob” that became a smash hit.
“Ten years. I never imagined working on the show to this date and this long. It never was possible to conceive that. … I really figured we might get a season and a cult following, and that might be it,” he told the Washington Post in 2009.
The show is about an anthropomorphic sea sponge called SpongeBob and his various friends, including a crab named Mr. Krabs and a starfish named Patrick. The show aired in more than 200 countries, and it has earned a number of awards during its run.
“By the third season, it felt like [we had] a solid fan base, and the show was kind of clicking on all levels,” Hillenburg told the Post in the interview.
“The first season, it definitely looks a little loose and the characters are drawn without the same construction,” he said of the show’s first season. “By the third season, everyone had new kinds of tricks — three-quarter-views of the characters, and nuances in cross-pollination between different storyboards. Everybody influenced each other as the show evolved and became more complicated and nuanced.”
In 2017, he issued a statement on his ALS diagnosis.
“I wanted people to hear directly from me that I have been diagnosed with ALS,” Hillenburg said, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “Anyone who knows me knows that I will continue to work on SpongeBob SquarePants and my other passions for as long as I am able. My family and I are grateful for the outpouring of love and support. We ask that our sincere request for privacy be honored during this time.”