On November 26, the creator of the Nickelodeon cartoon series “SpongeBob SquarePants”, Stephen Hillenburg, died at the age of 57 after over a year long battle with ALS. Although Hillenburg worked on other projects, he is best known for his creation of “SpongeBob” which is going into its 20th year running. Even though he departed the show in 2004, he returned in 2015 and worked on it until his unfortunate death.
Hillenburg was born on August 21, 1961 in Lawton, Oklahoma. His family moved to Anaheim, California when he was a year old and he grew up there. After finishing school and graduating from Humboldt State University in 1984 as a marine-science major and a minor in art, he eventually found a job at the Orange County Marine Institute.
While working at the Institution, Hillenburg was asked if he would be interested in creating an educational comic book about the animal life of tidal pools to teach his students. He created the comic called The Intertidal Zone which would later become his inspiration for the characters of “Spongebob SquarePants”. During this time, Hillenburg became increasingly interested in animation and eventually left his job in 1987 to become a full time animator.
After seeing some of Hillenburg’s early work, Nickelodeon hired him to direct “Rocko’s Modern Life” which lasted 4 seasons. While working on the show, one of the writers encouraged Stephen to create a television series with a similar concept to his comic The Intertidal Zone. After “Rocko’s Modern Life” ended in 1996, Hillenburg pitched his idea for “SpongeBob SquarePants” to Nickelodeon and it was approved and was first aired as a preview on May 1, 1999. The show is still running to this day and has become one of the longest-running series on Nickelodeon.
“SpongeBob SquarePants” quickly became one of the most popular shows on tv, but in 2004 Hillenburg left the show after creative differences with Nickelodeon executives. Hillenburg didn’t want the show to last more than 3 seasons, so he wanted to end it after releasing the The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie in 2004. Nickelodeon executives saw a lot of potential in the show and wanted to produce more episodes, so Hillenburg and Nickelodeon split. Paul Tibbitt, one of Hillenburg’s trusted staff members, was appointed executive producer and still holds the position today.
In 2014, Tibbet announced on his social media that Hillenburg would return to the show but in a lower position. In 2015, Hillenburg and Tibbet collaborated to direct the movie “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” which earned $323.4 million worldwide. In 2017, Hillenburg was diagnosed with ALS, but said he would continue to work on his show for as long as possible. He worked on the show until he unfortunately lost his battle with ALS in late November 2018. Junior Ben Grunow said, “His death hit me really hard because I really enjoyed SpongeBob and it was a big part of my childhood.”
Stephen Hillenburg may had only lived, to 57 years old, but the mark he left on the entertainment industry will be remembered for long after his death. “SpongeBob SquarePants” has gone on to become the sixth longest-running American animated series. He also won two Emmy Awards and six Annie Awards for the show. Not only did he receive recognition for “SpongeBob”, but he also received other recognition, such as an accolade from Heal the Bay for his efforts on elevating marine life awareness, and the Television Animation Award from the National Cartoonists Society.