Stephen McDannell Hillenburg, the creator of Nickelodeon's long-running cartoon series "SpongeBob SquarePants," died Monday, November 27. The official cause of Hillenburg's death is ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a diagnosis the SpongeBob creator disclosed in March 2017. He was 57.
"We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS," Nickelodeon stated. "He was a beloved friend and longtime 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 was born August 21, 1961, at Fort Sill in Lawton, OK, to parents Kelly N. Hillenburg, Jr., a designer for aerospace companies, and Nancy, a teacher for visually impaired children. He graduated from northern California's Humboldt State University in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in natural resource planning with an emphasis on marine biology.
He would become a marine biology teacher in southern California, combining his interests in marine life with his creativity to write stories and illustrate characters as tools for the classroom. His stories and drawings eventually morphed into Bikini Bottom, the home of his famous SpongeBob and led to a career in animation starting in 1987. The soon-to-be-hit cartoon premiered May 1999 and some 250 episodes have aired in nearly 20 years; and they have been subtitled in 60 languages. The "SpongeBob" series won multiple awards, including the U.S. Emmy and British Emmy awards. Hillenburg himself was nominated for eight Emmys, but never won.
In addition to the TV series, Hillenburg wrote, produced and directed the "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," released in 2004 and grossing more than $140 million worldwide. He followed up with "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water," a sequel released in 2015. SpongeBob also went to Broadway with the Tony-winning "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical," which concluded in September after 327 shows.
Alongside television, films and theater, Hillenburg's SpongeBob would inspire several hit arcade game attractions. About eight major titles, designed and built by such famous game-makers as Andamiro, Chicago Gaming and Sega, were released and still operate in entertainment destinations around the world. Today, Andamiro markets three popular SpongeBob arcade games in partnership with Nickelodeon. They are SpongeBob Pineapple Arcade (2015), SpongeBob Soccer Stars (2017) and SpongeBob Order Up (2017).
"There isn't any other licensed character that has inspired as many arcade games as SpongeBob," said Maniscalco, an amusement industry veteran who has been closely involved in the development of a half dozen SpongeBob-themed games. "Hillenburg's characters now have mass appeal to players of all ages. They are wholesome and offer tremendous crossover. In all my years in coin-op entertainment, the opportunity to work on SpongeBob products was among the most enjoyable time spent."
Hillenburg is survived by his wife of 20 years, Karen, son Clay, mother Nancy, brother Brian, sister-in-law Isabel and nieces Emma and Haze. His "SpongeBob SquarePants" creation will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2019.