Nov 27, 2018

By Tara Weiss
Hillenburg turned his love of animation and marine biology into a cultural icon.

Stephen Hillenburg, the marine biologist-turned-creator of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants, died Monday from ALS. He was 57.

“We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS,” Nickelodeon said in a statement on Tuesday. “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.”

Stephen Hillenburg Stephen Hillenburg

"“I think we all thought the show would be good, but I didn't ever assume it would catch on in a mass audience sort of way.”"

Stephen Hillenburg

SpongeBob SquarePants Creator

Hillenburg, who graduated college with a degree in natural science and worked at the Orange County Marine Institute, wasn’t a likely candidate for pop culture fame. But he had a longtime love of drawing and incorporated it into his work as a marine biologist. SpongeBob’s characters were born during his time at the Marine Institute, where he created The Intertidal Zone, an educational comic book about tide pools that included a talking sponge, one of many illustrations that would become the characters and scenery in Bikini Bottom.

“I was into Jacques Cousteau as a kid and started scuba-diving around 14, which blew my mind,” Hillenburg told The Guardian in 2016. “It was all colour, another world. I studied natural resources planning and thought I could get a job at some marine park. But I was great at art and so-so at marine biology. It’s funny how the two eventually came together.”

Hillenburg left his job at the Marine Institute to study experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts. Shortly after receiving his master’s degree in 1992, he joined the staff of Rocko’s Modern Life at Nickelodeon.

Once he pitched the concept for SpongeBob, the first episode aired in 1999. He didn’t expect it to gain a cult following. ''I think we all thought the show would be good, but I didn't ever assume it would catch on in a mass audience sort of way,'' he told The New York Times in 2001. ''That's unexpected, and we're flattered and relieved.''Since then, two SpongeBob movies, a Broadway musical, fashion collaborations with Vans and Moschino, countless consumer products and Emmy nods have helped the talking sponge grow into a global brand. The series has also made its way into meme culture, threading social media with SpongeBob-related jokes.

 

A long list of celebrity fans made cameos on the animated program, including Mark Hamill, Johnny Depp, Amy Poehler, LeBron James, Gene Simmons, Will Ferrell, Robin Williams and Tina Fey. Before his death, David Bowie -- who did a cameo in 2007 -- gave his blessing to feature his music in the Broadway musical.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical debuted in Chicago in 2016 and landed on Broadway in 2017. The show earned a Tony for Best Scenic Design of a Musical.

“I knew the show as in, how could one not know the show, but I was not a committed watcher or fan,” says Tina Landau, director of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical.  “When I first got asked about the project I initially passed. When I started researching and watching episodes and read interviews with Steve I did a 180. I found it to be so witty and sophisticated and post-modern.”

But what surprised her most were the fans.

“When we opened the show in Chicago we were surprised by the adults’ reactions,” says Landau. “Our biggest most ardent fan base are these people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. People who watched it at a certain age and have continued loving it. I forgot how deeply he permeates all aspects of our culture. Movies. TV. The cereal box in the grocery store.”

Hillenburg announced his diagnosis last March saying, "Anyone who knows me knows that I will continue to work on SpongeBob SquarePants and my other passions for as long as I am able."