De Niro's defense came after the Order Sons of Italy in America wrote a letter to the Italian government, urging it to cancel its plan to award the actor honorary citizenship. The government rejected that request, and is expected to confer the honor next month.
"The characters that I played are real — they are real. So they have as much right to be portrayed as any other characters," De Niro said, during promotion Friday of the animated feature "Shark Tale."
He added, "There are other characters that I've played other than those ones that have been called stereotypes or whatever."
From what they've seen in advance, said Sons of Italy leaders Joseph Sciame and Albert DeNapoli, "this movie will perpetuate the image of Italian Americans as Mafia gangsters.
Sciame and DeNapoli also said in their letter to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that De Niro "has done nothing to promote Italian culture in the United States. Instead, OSIA and its members hold him and his movies responsible for considerably damaging the collective reputations of both Italians and Italian Americans."
Jeffrey Katzenberg, the producer of "Shark Tale," came to the actor's defense. "The interesting thing is that the people who've said this, not one of them has seen the movie."
De Niro, whose paternal grandparents were born in Italy, expressed delight at the Italian-citizenship honor.
"I am part Italian, I'm not all Italian. I'm part Dutch, I'm part French, I'm part German, I'm part Irish. But my name is Italian," he said. "And I probably identify more with my Italian side than with my other parts. ... Italy is such a great, wonderful country. I'm very proud and honored to be asked to be a citizen."
"Shark Tale" was premiering in a special screening at Venice's St. Mark's Square on Friday night. The cartoon movie is a sea-based tale about Mafia sharks, with De Niro providing the voice-over for finned mob boss Don Lino. Other star voice-overs for the movie include Will Smith, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, Jack Black and Martin Scorsese.