SpongeBob SquarePants Creator Dies At 57 From ALS

File: SpongeBob SquarePants floats above 6th Avenue during the 92nd Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on Nov. 22, 2018, in New York. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

The creator of absorbent, yellow, porous cartoon icon SpongeBob SquarePants, Stephen Hillenburg, has died of ALS at age 57, according to Nickelodeon. He revealed last year that he had been diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease.

"We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS," Nickelodeon said in a statement. "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."

He made SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, Mr. Krabs and more a part of the lives of generations of young people — along with adults who love them, and spawning some of the internet's most prevalent memes. Nickelodeon noted that college students were attracted to the show, spawning Saturday-night viewing parties and giving Nickelodeon a whole new demographic.

(L to R) Sandy Cheeks, SpongeBob SquarePants, Squidward, Mr. Krabs, Patrick Starfish in Nickelodeon's SpongeBob Squarepants. (Courtesy Nickelodeon)

They also pointed out his attention to detail, down to the licensing — when a frozen food company wanted to put out branded fish sticks, Hillenburg told everyone that his characters weren't cannibals, and the product didn't move forward.

While born in Oklahoma, Hillenburg grew up in Anaheim. Hillenburg had a long-running love affair with the sea, enjoying Jacques Cousteau's undersea films as a kid.

As he got older, he enjoyed art, but wasn't sure how to apply it — so he latched on to the more tangible career of marine biology, graduating from Humboldt State with an emphasis on marine resources. Hillenburg was teaching marine biology at the Orange County Marine Institute (now the Ocean Institute) in Dana Point, when he created "Bob the Sponge" in 1984 as part of a comic book he used to teach about tide-pools, The Intertidal Zone.

He left teaching and, with an animation boom going on, he decided to follow his passion for the medium and attended CalArts, where he got a graduate degree in experimental animation. He created two short films, Green Beret and Wormholes; you can watch Green Beret here:

Joe Murray, creator of Rocko's Modern Life, saw some of Hillenburg's short films and asked him to direct on his show. One of the show's writers came into Hillenburg's office and saw his comic, The Intertidal Zone — and that moment inspired him to develop SpongeBob SquarePants as a show.

The idea: "Hey, what about a nerdy sponge, kind of like an undersea Jerry Lewis," according to Nickelodeon.

The show debuted in 1999, and it's run continuously ever since, though there have been some significant gaps between new seasons being created over the years. There were four years between the beginning of season 3 and season 4, as well as between seasons 9 and 10, but SpongeBob movies were produced in those interim periods.

Hillenburg left his position as showrunner after the 2004 movie, but returned for 2015's The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, co-writing the story. Hillenburg won two Daytime Emmy Awards and six animation Annie Awards for his work on the show, along with many more nominations.

Hillenburg is survived by his wife of 20 years, Karen, along with son Clay, mother Nancy, and brother Brian.

The show lives on — the latest season debuted Nov. 11, and another movie is scheduled for 2020. You can watch the Annie Award-winning episode "It's a SpongeBob Christmas!" here.


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