WASHINGTON -- Franklyn ''Lyn" Nofziger, the rumpled and irreverent conservative who served Ronald Reagan as press secretary and political adviser, died of cancer yesterday. He was 81.
Mr. Nofziger died at his home in Falls Church, Va., said Eldin Girdner, a family friend.
Reagan's wife, Nancy, said in a statement yesterday: ''I was deeply saddened this afternoon when I heard of Lyn Nofziger's death. Lyn was with us from the gubernatorial campaign in 1965 through the early White House days, and Ronnie valued his advice -- and good humor -- as much as anyone's. I spoke with him just days ago, and even though he knew the end was near, Lyn was hopeful and still in good spirits."
Mr. Nofziger, who joined Reagan's ranks early in the political career of the actor-turned-politician, headed the White House political office during the first year of the Reagan presidency and then quit to form a political consulting and lobbying firm.
''He was a great big garrulous guy who was very serious about his politics and very serious about Ronald Reagan," Michael Deaver, Reagan's deputy chief of staff, said yesterday. ''He was sort of the keeper of the flame."
''He was fun to be around," Deaver said. ''Reagan would light up when he came into the room."
Mr. Nofziger's great-niece Carol Dahmen said yesterday: ''He transcended parties; he was loved on both sides of the aisle. You could love him or hate him, but everybody respected him."
Conservative columnist George F. Will once described Mr. Nofziger, a cigar-chomping nonconformist, as Sancho Panza to Reagan's Don Quixote.
Asked why he was leaving the White House, Mr. Nofziger replied, ''I don't like government; it's just that simple." He denied as ''99 percent untrue" a report he had quit because of his exclusion from the president's innermost circle.
His determined irreverence extended to the Reagans.
''I'm not a social friend of the Reagans," he told an interviewer. ''That's by their choice and by mine. They don't drink enough."
Bombay gin, outrageous puns, and fierce loyalty to Reagan and conservative Republican principles were Mr. Nofziger hallmarks. His caustic wit made him a favorite among some reporters who covered Reagan as governor and president and on his various campaigns.
In a town where men wear expensive suits, Mr. Nofziger stood out in his rumpled sports coats and slacks. His trademark was a tie with a picture of Mickey Mouse, a visual statement of what he thought about Washington. When Reagan was elected to the White House, Mr. Nofziger refused to join other aides in calling their boss Mr. President. To him, Reagan was always ''Ronnie."
Mr. Nofziger was the aide who announced to the world that Reagan had been shot in the 1981 assassination attempt by John W. Hinckley Jr. Mr. Nofziger's statement, to reporters in the driveway of George Washington University Hospital, blew away assurances by other White House officials that Reagan had escaped unscathed.
But Mr. Nofziger's wit and camaraderie did not disguise the fact that he was a bare-knuckled political partisan.
During his year in the Reagan White House, he saw one of his principal responsibilities as rooting Democrats out of the federal government and replacing them with Republican loyalists.
Earlier, he had served on the Republican National Committee and as an aide to President Nixon. According to John Dean, Mr. Nofziger helped Nixon put together his infamous White House ''enemies list."
As White House liaison, Mr. Nofziger had mixed success with militant conservatives who early in the Reagan administration began chafing at the number of moderate Republicans given key jobs.
''Every time we appoint someone they don't agree with to a job, they feel the victory trickling away," he said in an interview.
Mr. Nofziger, who had worked as a newspaper reporter and editor and then as Washington correspondent for James Copley's chain of California papers, teamed up with Reagan in 1966 when the former actor was running for governor of California. After that successful campaign, Mr. Nofziger spent 21 months in Sacramento as Reagan's press secretary.
While his distaste for government made him unwilling to be part of anyone's bureaucracy for very long, Mr. Nofziger never was far from a Reagan campaign, whether for governor or for president.
His unorthodox manner grated on Nancy Reagan, a fact Mr. Nofziger never hesitated to confirm for any reporter who asked. But in the days after the president was shot, one of the messages Nancy Reagan received read: ''The president was not the only one. You done good, too." It was signed, ''Lyn."
In 1988, after he had left the Reagan administration to capitalize on his ties to Washington's ruling elite, Mr. Nofziger was convicted of illegally lobbying for two defense contractors and a labor union.
But Mr. Nofziger compared the offense to ''running a stop sign" and remained unrepentant. He told the judge, ''I cannot show remorse, because I do not believe I am guilty."
A year later a federal appeals court threw out the conviction, saying that prosecutors had failed to show Mr. Nofziger had knowingly committed a crime.
Mr. Nofziger's aversion to bureaucratic rules was best illustrated by the White House staff meeting early in the administration when James A. Baker III, the chief of staff, told everyone that even senior presidential aides must wear the distinctive lapel pins that would identify them to the Secret Service.
''I'm not going to wear my badge," declared Mr. Nofziger.
Mr. Nofziger was born in Bakersfield, Calif., and was politically conservative by the time he attended high school, where he worked on the school newspaper.
He served three years in the US Army during World War II.
Mr. Nofziger leaves his wife, Bonnie, their daughter, Glenda, and two grandchildren. Another daughter, Suzie, died in 1989.