(CelebrityAccess) — Stephen Hillenburg, a marine biologist, voice actor, and animator, best known as the creator of the Nickelodeon cartoon series Spongebob Squarepants, has died. He was 57.
Nickelodeon said Tuesday that Hillenburg died of ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease.
“Steve imbued SpongeBob SquarePants with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere,” Nickelodeon said in a statement. “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.”
Raised in Anaheim, California, Hillenburg pursued a career in marine biology, serving as an instructor at Orange County Marine Institute, where, as part of his curriculum, he began to develop comic characters based on marine life in tidal pools as an educational comic called The Intertidal Zone.
These characters would later become the basis for the cast of aquatic denizens that would populate the Spongebob Squarepants universe.
In 1989, Hillenburg enrolled in art school and later accepted a position with the Nickelodeon cable television network, working on the animated television series Rocko’s Modern Life. However, he continued to develop The Intertidal Zone characters and the show premiered in 1999 and has aired since.
The series also led to two feature films, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004), and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015).
Hillenburg took a hiatus from his role as showrunner in 2004, noting that he felt the 60 episodes he had already created for Nickelodeon would be sufficient.
“We’re working on episodes 40 through 60 right now, and I always looked at that as a typical run for an animated show. “Ren & Stimpy” lasted about that long, for example. And I thought now was a good time to step aside and look at a different project. I personally think it’s good not to go to the point where people don’t want to see your show anymore,” he told Current Biography in 2002.
In 2015, Hillenburg returned to the show and helped develop the sequel film, which went on to gross $323.4 million worldwide.
Hillenburg is survived by his wife, Karen Hillenburg; a son, Clay; his mother, Nancy; and a brother, Bryan.