Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of the hit Nickelodeon show "SpongeBob SquarePants," has died, the network announced Tuesday. He was 57.
Hillenburg died following a battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. In March, he announced that he had been diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease.
"We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS. He was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family," the network said in a statement.
"Steve imbued SpongeBob SquarePants with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere," the statement said. "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 in Lawton, Oklahoma, in 1961. He graduated from Humboldt State University in 1984 with a degree in natural resource planning and became a marine biology teacher in Dana Point, California. In 1987, he pursued a career in animation and graduated with an experimental animation degree from the California Institute of Arts in Valencia in 1992.
The following year, he began working as a writer and director on Nickelodeon's "Rocko's Modern Life." He went on to work for the network full-time, producing his animated series that eventually became "SpongeBob SquarePants," which debuted on May 1, 1999.
Joe Murray, the creator of "Rocko's Modern Life," saw one of Hillenburg's short films and asked him to direct episodes of the show. "That was really important for me because I really wouldn't have known how to put a show together without that experience," Hillenburg said in a 2005 interview with Nick Animation.
The show went on to multiple awards, including four Emmys and six Annie Awards. Hillenburg adapted his show for the big screen twice. "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" released in 2004 and "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" debuted in 2015.
"Obviously SpongeBob is comedy but it really was inspired by me liking marine science," he told Nick Animation. "I focused on that and I never thought the two would come together."