Nov 28, 2018

By Nicole Bitette
Peers, celebrities fondly remember the ‘SpongeBob’ creator, who died Monday.

Stephen Hillenburg, who died Monday from ALS at age 57, was remembered for “changing the face of TV” by Rocko’s Modern Life creator Joe Murray and Fairly OddParents creator Butch Hartman.

While Hillenburg may be best-known for SpongeBob SquarePants, his career at Nickelodeon began with “Rocko’s Modern Life” in 1993, after Murray approached him in the lobby of Ottawa Film Festival in 1992 following a viewing of Hillenburg’s film Wormholes.

“[I] told him about this show I was doing for Nickelodeon called ‘Rocko’s Modern Life’ and asked if he would be interested in working on it,” Murray says in an essay for Variety. “I was already in awe of his talent, and the two of us, neither having worked in television, thought it would be funny to see what kind of havoc we could bring to the medium.”

He recalled staying up late working on Rocko’s and shared that when Hillenburg showed him the pitch for SpongeBob, he thought it was a “fantastic choice” to merge his love for oceanography with his talent for cartoons.

“Little did I know that, with SpongeBob, he would change the face of television forever,” Murray says in Variety.

Walt Disney, Stan Lee, and Steve Hillenburg.

Butch Hartman, the creator of Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom, told Viacom on Wednesday that he agrees with that statement.

“[He took] the character of SpongeBob and injected it with a giant needle into pop culture. SpongeBob spread like a cartoon virus through pop culture, but I mean it in a good way,” Hartman says. “It took everybody by surprise and I think it took Steve by surprise too with just how big of a hit it was.”

Hartman says he and Hillenburg came up at Nickelodeon around the same time in the late ‘90s and that the two worked in the same building, though on different shows, for 20 years.

“I don’t think his impact can be measured by any normal standard. Very few people have ever created a character that iconic, that well-respected and that well-known,” he says. “I think there’s Walt Disney, Stan Lee, and Steve Hillenburg.”

While still in shock at Hillenburg’s passing, Hartman reflected on the creator’s legacy and says he hoped that he knew how many lives he touched with his famous yellow friend.

“I hope he knew how many people loved him and respected him and how much he impacted pop culture for the better,” Hartman says.

A vibrant, colorful, music-filled world.

Tom Kenny, the voice behind SpongeBob, in April praised Hillenburg for his creation while accepting a Creative Arts Emmy for voicing the character.

“SpongeBob's vocal cords might be mine, but SpongeBob's playful spirit of gentle energy, his humor and the joy he takes in his vibrant, colorful, music-filled world come directly—directly—100 percent from my good buddy, Mr. Stephen Hillenburg,” Kenny said.

The 56-year-old voice actor recalled Hillenburg pitching him the series in 1997 and said he “fell in love immediately.”

“It seems like some other people did too,” Kenny added.

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From Busy Philipps to Beck to Barack Obama

After news of Hillenburg’s death broke on Tuesday, thousands of fans and celebrities took to social media to thank the talented creator for the series that had such an impact on their lives.

Actress Busy Philipps took to Twitter to share the impact Hillenburg had on her family and 5-year-old daughter, Cricket.

“SpongeBob has brought my little one Cricket so much joy and given her the weirdest & wildest sense of humor,” she wrote. “Thank you Mr. Hillenburg and rest in peace.”

Singer Beck paid tribute to Hillenburg on Facebook on Tuesday, saying the two used to be neighbors and the SpongeBob creator did the artwork for his first EP.

“Very sad to hear the news of the passing of Stephen Hillenberg, who years and years ago used to be my neighbor and kindly did the artwork for the first music that I ever released,” Beck wrote. “The photo from the Record was shot behind his apartment. Better known as the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, I always remembered him as a genuinely sweet guy. I was lucky to get to run into him by chance at the airport a few months ago.”

David Hasselhoff, who voiced a lifeguard in Paramount Pictures’ 2004 “SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” said he is still stopped by people who recognize him from film.

“Wow what a unique and fantastic character Steve created!” Hasselhoff wrote. “It was my pleasure and honor to be in SpongeBob The Movie and to share some great laughs with this gentleman, Shocking Loss!”

"His mark on entertainment will endure, and his contribution to this world will always be felt."

Hasselhoff wasn’t the only big name to give voice to a “SpongeBob” character, dozens of celebrities made cameos on the series, including David Bowie, Will Ferrell, Johnny Depp, Mark Hamill, Tina Fey, Betty White and Robin Williams.

In 2016, former President Barack Obama even expressed his love for the effervescent sponge, saying at a rally in Michigan that he always “had a soft spot” for the character.

“SpongeBob SquarePants” first aired on Nickelodeon in 1999 and is now in its 11th season. It has since expanded into two films, with a third due out via Paramount in 2020. SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical landed on Broadway in 2017, nabbing a Tony award and multiple Emmy nominations.

Director of the Broadway show, Tina Landau, thanked Hillenburg for making her a part of Bikini Bottom.

“This man dreamt & drew & wrote & gave to us: SpongeBob (& so much more.),” she wrote on Twitter. “Thank you, Steve, for your spirit, your creation &, personally, for inviting me to Bikini Bottom.”

Hillenburg told the New York Times in 2001 that he never imagined the series would have such a cult following — or catch on to a mass audience.

“His mark on entertainment will endure, and his contribution to this world will always be felt,” Murray says. “I feel honored to have worked side by side with him, and anyone who knew him or was entertained by his work should be forever grateful. I know I am.”