Stephen Hillenburg, the 55-year-old creative mastermind behind SpongeBob SquarePants, revealed on Monday he has been diagnosed with amyotrophic laterals sclerosis, the progressive neurodegenerative disease commonly known as ALS or Lou Gherig's Disease.
"I wanted people to hear directly from me that I have been diagnosed with ALS," Hillenburg said in a statement (via Variety). "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. My family and I are grateful for the outpouring of love and support. We ask that our sincere request for privacy be honored during this time."
According to The ALS Association, "the life expectancy of a person with ALS averages about two to five years from the time of diagnosis, this disease is variable, and many people can live with the disease for five years and more."
"Steve Hillenburg is a brilliant creator who brings joy to millions of fans," read a statement from Nickelodeon. "Our thoughts and support are with Steve and his family during this difficult time. Out of respect for their wishes for privacy, we will have no further comment."
As a child, Hillenburg developed a passion for both art and marine biology. The latter was inspired by Jacques Cousteau's oceanographic expeditions, and was one of the main reasons he started his professional career teaching Marine Biology at the Orange County Marine Institute. But when he witnessed the boom in animation during the late-80s, his interest in art was reignited and he enrolled in California Institute of the Arts. When Joe Murray, the creator of Rocko's Modern Life (1993–1996), saw one of Hillenburg's animated shorts, he offered Hillenburg a directorial role on his television series — thus starting him on his path to becoming a world-famous animator.
SpongeBob SquarePants has emerged as a global pop culture phenomenon since first premiering on Nickelodeon in July 1999. The series has been the most-watched animated program for more than 14 consecutive years, and is seen in over 185 countries and translated in more than 50 languages. The character-driven cartoon chronicles the nautical and sometimes nonsensical adventures of SpongeBob, an incurably optimistic and earnest sea sponge, and his undersea friends.
MORE: SpongeBob Musical: First Look At Cast As SpongeBob, Squidward, Patrick & Sandy / Happy Days Cast Guest Star On SpongeBob SquarePants / The SpongeBob Musical Poster, Cast, & Plot Details Announced / Bob Barker Guest Stars On SpongeBob SquarePants
SpongeBob Squarepants airs on Nickelodeon in the US and the UK.