Stephen Hillenburg, who created SpongeBob SquarePants, has died at 57. Inhabited by a good-natured pineapple-dwelling yellow sponge and a motley crew of sea creatures, the Nickelodeon TV program gained huge popularity with both children and adults over its nearly 20-year run.
Nickelodeon said Tuesday that Hillenburg died of ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease.
“Steve imbued SpongeBob SquarePants with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere,” Nickelodeon said in a statement. “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.”
The underwater world of Bikini Bottom, where the action takes place, reflects Hillenburg’s deep interest in marine life. SpongeBob is surrounded by a starfish, an octopus, a crab and a pufferfish, to name a few.
Hillenburg, who is originally from Oklahoma, started his career teaching marine biology at the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point, Calif. He later switched gears to focus on animation, earning a degree at the California Institute of the Arts and working on Nickelodeon series Rocko’s Modern Life for about four years in the mid-1990s.
It was at Nickelodeon that his interests in marine biology and animation combined to create SpongeBob SquarePants.
In a 2015 interview with the channel, Hillenburg said a writer from Rocko’s Modern Life spotted his comic drawings of ocean creatures.
“It started me thinking, if I’m going to do a show, I would do it about these invertebrates and these crazy animals that exist in the ocean, and it would be the perfect fusion of the things that I did,” he said. “It was that moment where I said, maybe I should pursue this, you know, go down this path.”
The show was not initially viewed as an inevitable hit. On its 10-year anniversary in 2009, Brown Johnson, then the vice president of animation for Nickelodeon, told NPR’s Elizabeth Blair about some early conversations at the channel.
“Certain parts of the business at Nickelodeon were like, ‘Oh no. It’ll never be successful. It’s about a sponge. What’s that? It’s yellow. That’s a bad color,’ ” she said.
Now, the show has been on since 1999. It’s spawned two movies – 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and 2015’s The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water – and a Broadway show.
And it has profound global reach. According to Nickelodeon, it’s been translated into more than 60 languages. Images of the smiling yellow sponge are seen around the world.
In a 2004 interview with Fresh Air, Tom Kenny, the longtime voice of SpongeBob, describes Hillenburg’s dynamic style in the studio.
“Hillenburg definitely is the big kahuna and, a lot of times, just has every vocal nuance and eye blink and twitch mapped out to the nanosecond in his mind. And then other times, he’ll just take you off the leash and go, `You know, I don’t know where this is going. Just take it where it feels funny,’ ” said Kenny.
As he put it, some days working on the show was like doing math – other days, jazz.
Earlier this year, Kenny paid tribute to Hillenburg while presenting him with an award at the Daytime Emmy Awards. He lauded the wide and enduring appeal of the show: “I fell in love immediately and it seems like some other people did too.”