Stephen Hillenburg, creator of the Nickelodeon children’s series SpongeBob Squarepants, has died at age 57. The network announced the news on Tuesday, more than a year and a half after Hillenburg revealed his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
SpongeBob SquarePants first debuted in 1999 and continues to put out new episodes to this day, making it one of the longest-running animated television series. Prior to creating SpongeBob, Hillenburg received his graduate degree from CalArts and worked on the Nickelodeon show Rocko’s Modern Life, which he has cited as a formative experience in his career. But before he even became involved in animation, Hillenburg worked at the Orange County Marine Institute and created an educational comic book, The Intertidal Zone. It would later inspire his anthropomorphic comedy about SpongeBob Squarepants, who famously “lives in a pineapple under the sea.”
Over its almost two decades on the air, Hillenburg’s show has spun off two movies (one of which he directed) and a Broadway musical that earned 12 Tony Award nominations. In March 2017, Hillenburg revealed that he had ALS in a statement to Variety. “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,” he said. At the Daytime Emmys earlier this year, he received a lifetime achievement award and was introduced by voice actor Tom Kenny.
“SpongeBob’s vocal cords might be mine,” he said. “But SpongeBob’s playful spirit of gentle anarchy, his humor and the joy he takes in his vibrant, colorful, music-filled world come directly, directly, 100 percent from my good buddy, Mr. Stephen Hillenburg.”