Hillenburg had been battling ALS, a neurodegenerative disease that causes nerve cells in the brain and spinal chord to lose their ability to fire signals to one another. As a result, those afflicted with the disease eventually lose the ability to move their bodies. That includes everyday functions like chewing and breathing, which, once gone, lead to death.
"We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS," said Nickelodeon in an official statement provided to SYFY WIRE. "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.”
While his work behind the scenes of the show was much more prominent, Hillenburg did provide his lips to be used for those of Painty the Pirate in the show's iconic opening theme song.
Born in Oklahoma in the early '60s, Hillenburg didn't start off wanting to be a famous animator. His career path was more marine biology-focused, as he earned degrees from both Humboldt State University and the Orange County Marine Institute. With a natural talent for illustrating, he would write and illustrate stories for about the creatures of the sea for teaching purposes. In the end, these characters would turn into the good fish and crustacean people of Bikini Bottom.
Hillenburg earned another degree, this time for animation, from the California Institute of Arts in Valencia in the early '90s. Between 1993 and 1996, he wrote and directed episodes of Rocko's Modern Life at Nickelodeon. His position at the kid-friendly network was the perfect place to pitch the idea for his gestating kids' show, SpongeBob Squarepants (originally titled "SpongeBoy Ahoy!") about a gung-ho yellow sea sponge and his friends.
SpongeBob premiered on May 1, 1999 and has been going strong ever since with Tom Kenny in the titular voice acting role. The first episode, "Help Wanted," explained how SpongeBob came to be a short order fry cook at the Krusty Krab restaurant.
In 2004, Hillenburg directed and co-wrote The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, which saw SpongeBob and Patrick going on an adventure to recover King Neptune's crown. The cast included Jeffrey Tambor, Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin, David Hasselhoff. Making just over $140 million at the global box office, the movie was meant to be the series finale, but Nickelodeon decided to continue the cartoon, which is now in its 12th season.
After nearly 20 years, over 200 episodes, and two feature films (a third is in the works at Paramount), SpongeBob, his distinctive laugh, his meowing pet snail, his dim-witted best friend Patrick, his irritable neighbor Squidward, and so many other aspects of the 'Bob mythos are massive parts of our pop culture.
It's staggering just how big of a phenomenon SpongeBob has become in less than two decades. The children who have grown up with the absorbant hero, will miss Mr. Hillenburg dearly. He truly is a legend and many of us owe him so much for making our childhoods great. Rest in peace, Captain.
Hillenburg is survived by his wife, Karen; son, Clay; mother, Nancy; brother, Brian Kelly Hillenburg; sister-in-law, Isabel; and nieces Emma and Hazel.
After news of his death became known, Hillenburg was remembered by SpongeBob cast members and other entetainment contemporaries. Even Tony Hawk weighed in.