Stephen Hillenburg, who created Nickelodeon’s popular animated series SpongeBob SquarePants, has sadly passed away.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Hillenburg died in his Southern California home on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018, following a battle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). He was 57 years old.
Nickelodeon confirmed his passing in a statement to Variety on Tuesday, Nov. 27. “We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS,” the network stated. “He was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family.”
The statement continued, “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.”
Hillenburg first revealed that he’d been diagnosed with the progressive neurodegenerative disease in March 2017. “I wanted people to hear directly from me that I have been diagnosed with ALS,” he released in a statement at the time (via 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. 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.”
After teaching marine biology at the Orange County Marine Institute, Hillenburg studied animation and got his start in television while writing and directing Nickelodeon’s Rocko’s Modern Life in the early ’90s. Following its 1999 premiere, the long-running SpongeBob SquarePants became a cultural phenomenon, receiving critical acclaim and a number of awards, including four Emmy Awards and 15 Kids’ Choice Awards. The beloved cartoon series, which has since been adapted into two feature films, also lent itself to the stage with SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. The show earned an impressive 12 Tony Award nominations before ending its 327-show run in September 2018.
After the news of Hillenburg’s passing broke, a number of fans and celebs took to social media to mourn his loss. “The quality of the first three seasons of Spongebob are to blame for it’s decades-long cultural relevance,” actor-writer Gabriel Gundacker tweeted. “Stephen Hillenburg created a broad, optimistic universe without sacrificing any of his absurd sensibility, giving us art that could be loved and understood commonly. Tragic.” Meanwhile, actor Ethan Slater, who earned a Tony nom for his portrayal of SpongeBob on Broadway, wrote, “Thank you Stephen, for everything you brought in to the world. So much joy, for so many people. Thank you.”
Hillenburg is survived by his wife of 20 years, Karen, and their son Clay, as well as his mother Nancy and brother Brian.
Our thoughts are with Hillenburg’s loved ones during this difficult time.