Stephen Hillenburg, creator of the TV series SpongeBob SquarePants, died at the age of 57, according to Variety. The news was confirmed by Nickelodeon, which tweeted “Today, we are observing a moment of silence to honor his life and work.” Hillenburg was diagnosed last year with the neurodegenerative disease ALS.
“We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS,” Nickelodeon said in a statement. “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 former marine-biology teacher directed, produced, and wrote on SpongeBob SquarePants since 1999. He left the series after The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie came out but stayed on as an executive producer until he began executive producing the series again in 2015.
Stephen McDannell Hillenburg was born August 21, 1961 in Lawton, Oklahoma and raised in Anaheim, California. He was fascinated with the ocean and interested in art as a child. He taught marine biology at the Orange County Marine Institute, starting in 1984. He wrote the comic book The Intertidal Zone to instruct students in tide-pool animals.
Hillenburg enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts in 1989. In 1992, he produced the animated short films The Green Beret, about a Girl Scout with big fists who destroys neighborhoods while trying to sell Girl Scout cookies, and Wormholes, a seven-minute thesis film about the theory of relativity.
Hillenburg’s first professional job was directing Nickelodeon’s first in-house cartoon production, Rocko’s Modern Life, which ran from 1993 to 1996. He was named creative director during the show’s fourth and final season.
Hillenburg started turning characers from The Intertidal Zone into SpongeBob SquarePants in 1994. The show premiered in 1999. He also directed The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie in 2004, and co-wrote the 2015 sequel The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. Hillenburg also made the animated short Hollywood Blvd., USA (2013).
Hillenburg won two Emmy Awards and six Annie Awards for SpongeBob SquarePants. He is survived by his wife Karen Hillenburg, son Clay, mother Nancy Hillenburg, and brother Brian Kelly Hillenburg.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.