Robert De Niro (search) dismissed accusations that his Mafia (search) roles have smeared the image of Italian-Americans, arguing that he plays realistic characters including many who could not be construed as stereotypes.

De Niro's defense Friday came after theOrder Sons of Italy in America (search), a fraternal organization of Americans of Italian heritage, 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."

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."

De Niro has appeared as an Italian-American mobster in "Goodfellas" and "The Godfather Part II." In "Analyze This" and "Analyze That," he performed a comedic send up of the mafia tough-guy persona.

"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 voice-overs for the movie include Will Smith, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie, Jack Black and Martin Scorsese.