Stephen Hillenburg, the man who used his background in marine biology to create the wildly popular cartoon series SpongeBob SquarePants for Nickelodeon, has died from ALS, the network announced Tuesday. He was 57.
“We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS,” a Nickelodeon spokesperson said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “He was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family.”
Hillenburg revealed last year that he had been diagnosed with the disease but vowed to continue working on the TV show, which has been running since 1999. ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a neurodegenerative disease that affects cells in the brain and spinal cord.
As a child with a passion for art, Hillenburg also became fascinated with the ocean after watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries on television.
In a 2012 Nerdist podcast interview, he recalled going diving for the first time and discovering the underwater world didn’t resemble the black-and-white pictures he had seen.
“It just was a shock for me,” he recalled, “and I was riveted by that experience.”
With his passion for drawing a side hobby, he opted to study marine biology in college. “The art part of me, it came easy,” he said. “The research and studying for [marine biology] was much harder, and I never really saw the two of them coming together.”
After teaching at the Orange County Marine Institute, he opted to return to school to study animation and a master of fine arts. He then joined Nickelodeon, working as a director and writer on Rocko’s Modern Life.
It was then that Hillenburg came up with the idea of the talking sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea, convincing the children’s channel to take a gamble on the bizarre project idea.
“I decided, ‘OK, if I’m doing it about one character, what’s the kind of character that I like? First of all, what’s the weirdest character? What’s the weirdest animal?’ The sponge came to mind,” he told the Nerdist podcast.
Following the adventures of an eternally optimistic protagonist and his band of undersea friends, the first episode of SpongeBob SquarePants aired in May 1999. It soon proved an international hit, airing almost 250 episodes and winning a slew of awards.
There have also been two feature films and a Tony-nominated Broadway musical.
“Steve imbued SpongeBob SquarePants with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere,” the Nickelodeon representative said. “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.”
According to Variety, which first reported the death, Hillenburg is survived by his wife, Karen, and their son, Clay.