Hillenburg passed away from ALS. He is survived by his wife, Karen Hillenburg, and son Clay, among other family members.
The animator worked as a director and writer on Nickelodeon’s Rocko’s Modern Live before developing SpongeBob SquarePants, which debuted on the kids’ channel in 1999. The Emmy-winning series — which follows a talking sea sponge who lives in a pineapple at the bottom of the ocean — has aired 249 episodes and spawned two feature-length films and a Broadway musical.
In a statement, Nickelodeon said it was “incredibly saddened” by Hillenburg’s death, adding, “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.”