Stephen Hillenburg, creator of the iconic SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon, died on Monday following a long battle with ALS.
Hillenburg, 57, created SpongeBob SquarePants for Nickelodeon after working as a marine biologist and contributing to the show Rocko’s Modern Life, ushering in one of the most popular and successful cartoons in American television history. SpongeBob has been going strong since its debut in 1999 and earned Hillenburg two Emmys in his lifetime.
Hillenburg revealed his ALS diagnosis in 2017. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, ALS is a nervous system disease that cause the brain and spinal cord to deteriorate, causing muscle weakness, discomfort, and loss of motor control. While therapy can slow down the onset of ALS, there is still no known cure.
The ALS Association works to raise awareness of ALS and fund research to fight back against the deadly disease.
In a statement obtained by Variety, Nickelodeon paid tribute to Hillenburg and expressed condolences to his friends and family.
“We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS,” Nickelodeon said in its statement. “He was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family. 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 also directed The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, which came out in 2004. He intended it to be the show’s finale, and left the show for many years after, only returning in 2014.
Steve Hillenburg is survived by his wife Karen Hillenburg, his son Clay, his mother Nancy Hillenburg, and his brother Brian Kelly Hillenburg, per Variety.