I knew there was something, no offense, that I didn’t like about Robert Downey, Jr. And it wasn’t just those franchise films he’s been making since ’08 (Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes, Avengers) and those would-be tentpolers (like that Perry Mason project) he’s developing. I hate the Holmes brand and that whole corporate steampunk CG bandwagon asthetic, but people with no taste feel otherwise so what can I do?

In any event Downey has appeared in a pair of subversive comedies within the last three years, Tropic Thunder and Due Date, so it’s not like he’s entirely abandoned the indie-ish attitude and acting career he had as the costar of Zodiac, Good Night and Good Luck, Two Girls and a Guy, A Scanner Darkly and Natural Born Killers . He’s getting there, but he hasn’t gone full-sellout.

What bothers me is the vibe Downey has been putting out since the first Sherlock Holmes flick — the vibe of a slick salesman, a marketer, a corporate guy. Which fits in with those reports that he’s become a Republican. With all those Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows posters all over the place and memories still vivid of that feeling of being poisoned as I watched the first Holmes film, I started to wonder just who Downey is these days, deep down, and whether the corporate franchise thing is a phase or a keeper or what.

The basic story, as everyone knows, is that Downey went through a gradual metamorphosis after his long drug-abuse period (’96 to ’01) that had included arrests, prison, rehab and several relapses.

His big switchover to franchise movies has been more or less orchestrated by his producer-wife of six years, Susan Levin, an exec vp production at Silver Pictures (i.e., Joel Silver‘s long-established production company on the Warner Bros. lot). In November 2009 he told Esquire‘s Scott Raab that he credits Susan with helping him kick substance abuse for good. “There’s no understanding for me of the bigger picture in real time in a hands-on way without her,” he said. “Because it was the perfect, perfect, perfect matching of personalities and gifts.” Robert and Susan are reportedly expecting their first child in February 2012.

In 2009 Downey conveyed his politically rightward drift to N.Y. Times reporter David Carr. “I have a really interesting political point of view, and it’s not always something I say too loud at dinner tables here, but you can’t go from a $2,000-a-night suite at La Mirage to a penitentiary and really understand it and come out a liberal. You can’t. I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone else, but it was very, very, very educational for me and has informed my proclivities and politics ever since.”

So yesterday I talked to a guy who knew Downey way back when. I asked if Downey is a totally converted Republican these days, right down to the bone marrow, or is he just playing the part and making spirit-numbing CG flicks because he wants to get rich? Here’s part of what he said:

“Downey has always been for sale,” he says. “It’s just that nobody was buying before. Right now I don’t think he has any sense of value outside of the products he’s creating and selling. He’s become a merchandiser and a marketer rather than an actor. There were no high bidders before. That’s why he did whatever was there.

“And then in ’03 he meets Susan Levin, who works for Joel Silver, and she says if you want to make money, you have to clean up and stay straight, which he needed to do, and I’ll get you into Joel Silver’s world. And Downey took the deal. He knows who Silver is and what those Sherlock Holmes films are about, and he decided to take that deal when he married Levin and let her steer him into projects.”

This is a second-hand story but this guy says that sometime after The Soloist tanked, Susan Downey was overheard saying “that’s the last art film I let Robert do.”

“His values are pure Republican values.” the guy says. “He’s a serious materialist. He loves the great clothes, the beautiful house, the cool cars. He’s a ‘protect the rich’ guy. Why should the rich have to pay for this or that? The people who have it should keep it, and the people who don’t have it shouldn’t complain. And the one he looks up to the most and has been his philosophical guide is Mel Gibson. The Gibson thing is key. Mel Gibson over the years, and who he is and that way of looking at the world.”

As Roger Friedman reported in 2003, Downey was able to return to movies only after Gibson, who’d been a close friend to Downey since they starred together in Air America (’90), paid Downey’s insurance bond for his appearance in The Singing Detective (’03).

“Downey has looked up to Gibson as an older brother and authority figure and mentor for a long time…Mel said this, Mel said that…all through the ’90s and the aughts,” the guy says. “They shared [the late] Ed Limato as an agent. I ask you, how can you be that close to Mel Gibson for 20 years and not share some of his values? Of all the people Downey was close to Mel was by far the most politically inclined and vocal…he was a kind of guru.

“So they’ve been close all through the last 20 years despite Air America having been a failure, both commercially and critically. Usually people sort of run away from people with whom they’ve made a bomb with, but not here.

“Downey is in the factory business now, the manufacturing business. It’s a different business than being an actor. He’s in the cartoon business. He’s being successful in cartoons. And the way it works is, you keep doing those movies until people get sick of you and those movies are not available anymore. Bruce Willis did these movies in the ’90s until it ran out for him. He kept doing them when he could do them. This is what Downey is doing now. As long as there are offers, and the calendar has slots to fill, you just say ‘what is the deal?’ and ‘what are the dates?'”