Hillenburg was a nine-time Emmy nominee for SpongeBob but never a winner.
In February at the Annie Awards in Los Angeles, Hillenburg was among those given a Winsor McCay honor for his career contributions to animation. Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob, made the stage presentation and accepted the award on Hillenburg's behalf as he remained seated to receive a standing ovation.
Born on Aug. 21, 1961, in Lawton, Oklahoma, Hillenburg graduated from Northern California's Humboldt State University in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in natural resource planning and interpretation, with an emphasis on marine resources.
"Obviously, SpongeBob is a comedy, but it really was inspired by me liking marine science," he said in a 2015 interview. "I focused on that, and I never thought the two would come together."
While working at a marine institute in Orange County, California, Hillenburg noticed that "animation started booming," and that led him to enroll at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia as a graduate student in 1987. He left five years later with a degree in experimental animation.
Starting in 1993, Hillenburg wrote and directed for Rocko's Modern Life and Rugrats at Nickelodeon.
Martin Olson, a writer on Rocko's Modern Life, admired a comic book that Hillenburg had drawn and written about tide pools. "It got me thinking, If I were to do a show, it would be about these invertebrates and these crazy animals that exist in the ocean," Hillenburg recalled. "It was that moment that said, 'Maybe I should pursue this.' "
SpongeBob SquarePants premiered in May 1999. The series -- which has won multiple awards, including honors from the British Emmys, the Annies and ASACP -- has aired more than 250 episodes during its nearly two decades on air.
He also was an early voice actor for Potty the Parrot and played the ukulele for some of the show's original music.
SpongeBob has been adapted twice for the big screen, for 2004's The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and again for 2015's The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. Additionally, the character found life on the stage in the Tony-winning SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, which wrapped a 327-show stint in September.
Hillenburg is survived by his wife of 20 years, Karen (the character Karen Plankton is named for her); son Clay; mother Nancy; brother Brian and his wife, Isabel; and nieces Emma and Hazel.
"Steve imbued SpongeBob SquarePants with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere," Nickelodeon 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."
Mike Barnes and Carolyn Giardina contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.