ST. LOUIS — Joe Williams didn’t march to the beat of a different drummer; he strolled with his own rhythm section.

ST. LOUIS — Joe Williams didn’t march to the beat of a different drummer; he strolled with his own rhythm section.


Armed with passionate curiosity, a contagious smile and a bone-deep belief that good movies are precious gifts, Williams threw himself into serving the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as its movie critic.


That 15-year run ended tragically Sunday when Williams was killed in a one-vehicle accident in Jefferson County. He was 56.


"I never met anyone who loved working for the Post-Dispatch more than Joe," said Post-Dispatch reporter Paul Hampel, a close friend since college. "He loved the movies, he loved the paper and he loved his friends."


Williams started at the Post-Dispatch in 1997 as a feature writer for the "Get Out" entertainment section. He became the movie critic in 2000.


He was a regular guest every Friday on KTRS-AM and made weekly appearances on KMOV-TV from 2003 to 2006.


Jody Mitori, assistant managing editor for features, said Williams was more than simply dedicated to movies.


"He loved to watch them, talk about them and share his opinions about them," Mitori said. "He was a gifted writer with a sharp wit and a generous spirit."


But movies were just one passion embraced by the west St. Louis County native. Hampel noted his friend’s love affair with Route 66, calling Williams a "modern Jack Kerouac."


"He was just a vagabond. Hardly had a penny to his name," Hampel said. "When he got his paycheck, he put it in his tank and hit the road. He tried to live life to his fullest and see the world."


Williams took a substantial amount of pride in the fact that he lived in an all-metal Lustron home in the St. Louis suburb of Brentwood, and a substantial amount of pleasure when someone would point out that he wore more bracelets, rings and watches — at the same time — than any two women or eight men.


Still, that wasn’t the total of his pursuits. Other hobbies over the years included attending Burning Man gatherings; reading T.C. Boyle novels; listening to Who albums and Cardinals baseball games; editing a punk rock magazine, Jet Lag, in the early 1980s; and most of all, going to drive-in movies.


His mother, Marie Williams of Manchester, Mo., said her son was on his way to the Starlite Drive-In in Cadet, Mo., when the accident occurred.


The Missouri Highway Patrol reports that about 6:35 p.m. Sunday, Williams was southbound on Highway 67, a mile north of Timbercreek Drive, when he veered too far to the left, over-corrected and drove into a ditch on the right side of the highway. His 2000 Lexus 300 came to rest on its roof.


Williams, who was wearing a seat belt, was pronounced dead at the scene. The crash remains under investigation.


Joseph L. Williams made his debut on Nov. 9, 1958, the oldest of eight children born to Wallace and Marie Williams.


Along with his mother, Williams is survived by his wife, Kathryn Welch of Brentwood; two brothers, Peter Williams and Christopher Williams, both of China; and four sisters, Laura Williams and Kelly Harper, both of Manchester, Anne Kipper of St. Ann and Gail Williams of Eureka, Mo. A brother, Paul Williams, preceded him in death.


Williams graduated in 1976 from Parkway West High School in Ballwin, Mo., and is a member of the school’s Hall of Fame. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1982 from the University of Southern California, where Boyle was his writing coach and mentor.


He made his way back to his home state and to Mizzou’s journalism school. While getting a master’s degree there, he became fast friends with Hampel and Jeff Daniel, a former Post-Dispatch feature writer and art critic.


"Joe was one of the most kindhearted people I’ve known," Daniel said. "He’d always pick something up when he was on the road and give it to me, some item that he said had made him think of me."


Williams’ love of drive-in movie theaters factored into his wedding day, in 2006, his wife said.


"We were on a road trip and stopped at an abandoned drive-in in Valentine, Neb.," Welch said. "We got out of the car and Joe said, ‘Let’s get married today.’ The day was June 6. He had planned the proposal because that day was the anniversary of the opening of the world’s first drive-in theater."


The first to admit he was a heart-on-sleeve liberal, Williams was always willing to debate politics if movie talk happened to lag.


He also enthusiastically embraced conspiracy theories, especially those surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Williams even wrote a book about the subject, titled "The Grassy Knoll Report."


Williams wrote two other books: "Hollywood Myths," about Tinseltown scandals; and "Entertainment on the Net," a 1995 book listing movie-review websites.


Williams also was one of the founding members in 2000 of the St. Louis Film Critics Association and was elected as president in March 2014 to a two-year term.


"We respected his work and admired his integrity. St. Louis has lost an advocate for good movies and our region," association secretary Lynn Venhaus said. "We will miss our lively conversations with him."


Pete Maniscalco of Allied Integrated Marketing, which promotes movies and arranges screenings in the St. Louis area, said, "We lost one of the good guys.


"Joe Williams was not only one of the best film critics around, but also the most loyal friend you’d ever want to have," Maniscalco said. "It’s a devastating loss for the film community in St. Louis and those of us who knew him well."


Finally, to answer the question most asked of movie critics, Williams’ favorite movie of all time was "It’s a Wonderful Life."


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(Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.)


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